Can we still be friends? A reflection on unlikely political friendships and how communicating with respect contributes to collaboration
You don’t have to look very far or listen very long before the tenor of divisiveness in our country becomes evident. In the midst of it all, I long for conversation, real conversation, to find out why we are at such odds. My premise is that communication—open communication with respect for the communicator—can guide us to common ground, as unlikely political friendships have shown us.
When asked how she would respond to comments of others that were not aligned with her own, recently departed U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg responded, “Well, never in anger, as my mother told me. That would have been self-defeating.” On a separate occasion, she stated, “One can disagree without being disagreeable.” That approach worked out pretty well for her throughout her career and in unlikely friendships, such as that with fellow Justice Antonin Scalia.
Chris Scalia, son of the late Antonin, recounted on “Fox & Friends Weekend” right after Ginsburg’s passing, “They (Ginsburg and Scalia) held very strong, very different views. They wrote opinions that disagreed with each other’s opinions—and they didn’t pull any punches in those opinions—but they never let those strong, deeply held beliefs get in the way of their friendship.” The opera-going duo’s relationship was then, and still is, seen as unusual. I find that unfortunate.
Another friendship of political opposites was that of the late Senator John McCain and former Vice President Joe Biden. While representing two political sides of the aisle, they were friends who brought their families together for picnics.
Our family recently had a similar, albeit less-famous, picnic with friends of differing political perspectives.
After we visited awhile and were comfortable in our lawn chairs, it just came out. “Can I ask you, because I really want to understand, why you so strongly believe in supporting your political party?” I asked, surprising myself for putting it out there. My husband shot me a look like, “Oh, no. Here we go!” But I continued. “I know that if you look at the four of us, we are all fairly moderate, but yet, each of us would likely cancel the other’s vote. Is it OK for us to talk about that?” And with an opening built on a desire to understand, not an intent to persuade, we entered into a civil, respectful conversation that helped us reflect upon views that were not our own. I’m pretty sure we didn’t change anyone’s votes that night. But that wasn’t the point. We helped each other see that the other perspective is not to be vilified. Only through respect can we dialogue. And with dialogue, we might, just might, find common ground.
The Great Communicator, as former President Ronald Reagan was known, also had an unlikely friendship with political opposite House Speaker Tip O’Neill. “Historic tax reforms, seven tax increases, a strong united front that brought down the Soviet Union—all came of a commitment to find common ground,” O’Neill’s son Thomas O’Neill wrote in the New York Times in 2012.
During a recent CNN Town Hall, Biden, this year’s Democratic presidential nominee, recounted an early interaction right after he was sworn in as a senator that stuck with him. According to Biden, then-Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield said, “Joe, it’s always appropriate to question another man’s or a woman’s judgment. It’s never appropriate to question their motive because you don’t know. And once you question motive, you can never get to an agreement.”
In his inaugural address, President Donald Trump said, “Together, we will determine the course of America and the world for years to come.”
Despite what they both share about making decisions together and setting aside motive, our presidential candidates and many of their followers appear to only hear what they want to hear, and open communication built upon respect is hard to find.
I can only hope that while my neighbors are putting out canceling signs in their front yards, one neighbor’s larger than the next, that they consider having respectful and insightful dialogue with those of differing views in their backyards. And one conversation at a time, our friendships will contribute to outcomes that create a more unified United States of America.
Bridget O’Connor is owner and principal of strategic communications firm O’Connor Connective, helping executives and their teams communicate in good times and while going through tough change. Learn more at oconnorconnective.com.