SMU DRCM Prof. Tom Hartsell on How To Talk Politics Without Blowing Your Lid

D Magazine by S. Holland Murphy

Originally Posted: October 14, 2016

There’s a deep political divide among my Facebook friends: On one side, the conservative suburbanites whom I grew up with, and, on the other, the liberal artists and urbanites I have befriended since college. The election is bringing out the worst in all of them, and the dogmatic social media posts have now hit a fever pitch.

It may be bringing out the worst in me, as well. I’ve never been a fan of political discussions—the result of being raised by a lawyer whose sport of choice is heated debate—but this week’s political theatrics compelled me to leave an incendiary comment on a relative’s Facebook post, and I started to wonder whether some of my relationships could survive this election cycle.

All of this led me to email Tom Hartsell, a lawyer and mediator who teaches in the Department of Dispute Resolution and Counseling at SMU. I asked him if he had any thoughts on how I could make it to November 8th without having to sever ties with people I otherwise love and respect. He wrote back with an essay about his own experience. It’s worth sharing:

“Like most Americans I can’t wait for the presidential election to be over with.  My spouse and I have been coexisting on opposite sides of the political divide since we got married over 20 years ago. Every four years the tension begins to ramp up around the presidential election.  What we have learned is that we do best when we avoid discussion of the election and candidates. We spent years debating and arguing and trying to persuade and change each other’s views without success.

The old saying love the person, abhor the sin is applicable, but in a marriage it is best not to let on how much you abhor your spouse’s chosen candidate. For the sake of the greater good—the relationship—we had to agree to disagree and discontinue political debate. 

As an educator and professional involved in conflict resolution for most of my professional career, you would think I would have had more success in navigating political disagreements with my spouse and keep them from becoming contentious. My spouse and I were unable to keep our emotions from getting hijacked which caused bad feelings. In other words, we would get nasty with each other. Not the kind of heat you want in the marital bed. Fortunately, time has given us perspective. Guess what America, the country survives whoever gets to set up shop in the oval office. The emotional upset political disagreements generated was physically draining for my spouse and I, and would temporarily blind us as to how we truly felt about each other. 

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