How to Navigate Polarising Issues in Your Friendships Without Being Antagonistic

Polarising Issues Chess Board

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Polarising issues arising from an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world, can lead to relationship conflict or even end friendships & relationships.

Tara Thomas & Kia Handley discuss a message from a listener about a friendship breakdown, and some of the issues that arise from that experience.

[Full transcript below]


    You can listen to the show live on Monday mornings from 9:30 am on ABC Newcastle at 1233AM or stream live here.

    Kia Handley is the presenter of ABC Newcastle and NSW Mornings show. When she's not talking your ear off, she can be found getting around on roller skates, listening to podcasts, and drinking too much coffee.

    You can also find the incredibly talented Kia Handley on ABC  Newcastle Mornings here, Twitter @kiahandley  FB kiahandleyjourno TikTok @kiahandley IG @kiahandley

    Episode Transcript:

    This Friendship Ended During COVID

    COVID vaccine

    Kia Handley:

    Tara Thomas, and I put out the call on social media for stories about friendships changing and ending, how it went down, and the heartache it caused. And we got this story about a friendship that ended due to polarising issues.

    "I had a really close friend. We used to go camping and traveling. They didn't have kids either, and it was this super fun other couple that we laughed with a lot.

    Our husbands both knew each other since high school. So they'd been friends forever.

    We're also small business owners, so we were super stressed when the pandemic first happened and were very much struggling to keep it together while also doing all we could to stick with the health requirements that we needed to, to keep us open.

    They bought into conspiracy theories and started telling us we were sheep. And I thought "if putting on masks means we stay in business, then please just put them on."

    And that was it. We haven't heard from them since probably June or July of 2020, and I was super heartbroken... Then angry. And now I'm not sure. Maybe we weren't as good friends as I thought? And it's just really hard."

    What Polarising Issues Does This Story Raise?

    Kia Handley:

    This can happen at any time for any number of reasons. So let's talk about it: What happens when friendships that you think are for life, change due to polarising issues?

    Tara Thomas is a Relationship Coach with The Sugar Doctor. Good morning.

    Tara Thomas:

    Good morning, Kia!

    Kia Handley:

    What do you make of a story like this?

    Tara Thomas:

    Oh my gosh. This one really gets me in the feels.... because... You may be surprised to hear this knowing that I'm such an extraordinary resourceful woman... but this has happened to me a few times in the last couple of years as well.

    And it's really, really difficult. It's got all of those elements of a breakup or even a death, you know; the grief and the anger and all of those things. And it does leave you questioning "was it ever what I thought it was?"

    I think it raises one of the most important questions that we all really need to grapple with in these times, which is:

    How do we maintain relationships in a world that profits from polarization, in the face of important and polarising issues that many of us feel passionate about?

    What Kinds of Things Become Polarising Issues?

    Kia Handley:

    COVID has magnified a lot of things in relationships, but polarising issues happen in a variety of contexts, it's something that can come up.... and can feel too big to overcome in a friendship.

    Tara Thomas:

    Totally. I mean,  we're talking about the polarising issues of COVID and vaccinations, but we could easily be talking about the upcoming federal election or climate change or football teams or kayak brands.

    We do have strong opinions. So it's about unpacking the themes within that,  navigating that heartache & heartbreak, and navigating conflict in these stressful times. And also asking: how do we change the way we approach polarising issues within our relationships? And should you keep that old friendship?

    What Kind of Losses Can Result from Polarising Issues?

    Sad Man

    Kia Handley:

    If we do hit this point where we just realize that the friendship has to dramatically change or perhaps even end, just how big a loss can that be.

    Tara Thomas:

    It can be huge,  it depends on the length and the depth of your relationship. Whether it's a family member, whether it's a lifelong friend or like this listener had said, their husbands had been friends since school.

    So that can be's grief, it's navigating grief. And then I think it's really important for us to be able to, if we do make the decision to end a relationship due to these polarising issues, to be able to close that chapter without rewriting our whole history-without rewriting that story that we're telling ourselves about our friendships.

    So as that listener had said "maybe we weren't that close anyway"

    What is Distorting, Deleting, and Generalising?

    In NLP it's called deleting distorting and generalizing;

    We delete the good times or things that we agreed on, And we only remember our disagreements and discussions about polarising issues, or

    we distort what someone has said and magnify the bad things, or reinterpret actions or events that had happened before.

    And then we generalize and we make it mean, "maybe we just, you know, maybe we're very different people, or maybe they don't believe in science, or maybe they're just sheep." You know, we really generalize and make this one polarising issue that we're not agreeing on mean that we are fundamentally different people and therefore not compatible.

    That's a really dangerous place to go. Not just within our intimate relationships and friendships, but also in the broader context of the community and the global community.

    [For more on this, read How We Interpret the World: The NLP Communication Model ]

    What Can We Learn From Friendships Ending?

    Kia Handley:

    Even if something does end or change, perhaps we're not seeing each other as much in that friendship group as we were before, because you know, sometimes just growth of people at different places and, and different paces and different stages of life.

    It doesn't mean that there wasn't good and we can still reflect on the times that we did have as friends with happiness.

    Tara Thomas:

    Yeah, I agree. I think it might be nice to sort of redirect our energy toward having a 'funeral'.

    You know, you have a funeral and it doesn't mean you then believe that person who passed away wasn't an important part of your life. We collect stories of funny times and sad times, we reflect on the quality of their life and the influence they had on our own lives. I think that's a really nice way to bring closure to a friendship without having to rewrite all that history and minimize the importance of the time that you did have together.

    Kia Handley:

    Because we also learn from those friendships. And when we set ourselves boundaries and we, as we deal through conflict about polarising issues... That helps us with our next relationships or our current relationships as well.

    So by belittling the good times or glossing over them, you actually don't look at your own growth and how you're going to then take that learning opportunity into everyone else that you get to shower with love in your life.

    Tara Thomas:

    I think you're exactly right, Kia and also acknowledging that we are living in this time of really heightened stress. We're not necessarily gonna be our most resilient or resourceful selves, the external environment's gonna magnify polarising issues we have between us.

    We learn a lot about ourselves in those times, as you were saying, we learn: How do I approach people when things are really uncomfortable? How do I talk about polarising issues? And how can I learn from that?

    How Do We Navigate Polarising Issues?

    Kia Handley:

    When we do notice this conflict about polarising issues coming up, especially if it is during a stressful time, how do we try to navigate it?

    Tara Thomas:

    I think taking some perspective on the fact that most of us don't actually have opposite opinions about polarising issues.

    Most of us have taken a position from whatever our sources are. And within that position, we often do have doubts and questions. Esther Perel calls it "splitting the ambivalence"

    So instead of acknowledging that maybe Kia, you only buy this certain brand of kayak. And I think it's really dumb, I think it's the worst. I think it's, you know, overpriced garbage. But within that, I make that mean that YOU think that brand's the best. And I KNOW it's the worst, rather than acknowledging that perhaps you have doubts about that. And you know.... Some of the things you like - the price and you like the functionality - but you don't necessarily like their, I don't know, position on climate change.

    So acknowledging that we, we often don't have those opposite opinions about polarising issues that we think we do, there are nuances to our views, and that we can be BOTH concerned about something AND also hold the tension of the complexity around that.

    So if you imagine a Venn diagram, which might be... The circle might be, if we're talking about vaccination, for example;

    • one circle might be, "I am vaccinated".
    • And another circle of that diagram might be, "I'm concerned about the effects of what that might mean long term".
    • And another circle might mean, "I'm concerned about politically, how that's gone down."
    • And the fourth circle might be, "I'm concerned about the impact of not being vaccinated on the community".

    So you can have concerns AND have made a particular decision within polarising issues, right? You're not assuming that the person, your friend has either zero concerns or has ALL the concerns. And you are sharing where you are on that SPECTRUM of polarising issues now, so that you can look for places where you agree and, and find those overlaps,

    Can't We Just Agree to Disagree?

    Friends fighting about polarising issues

    Kia Handley:

    Especially when it comes to being polarising issues socially or even politically- Can you have a solid friendship, but also have no go zones where it's like, right. We are very good friends, but we do not talk about the federal election. Like we just don't, we don't need to, it's not, it's not important?

    Tara Thomas:

    Yeah, you totally can. I mean that's the choice that many people make about polarising issues: I don't talk about this particular thing.

    I also wanna invite people to maybe just be a little bit more curious and walk towards talking about it.

    There's a group in the U.S called Braver Angels who do these red/blue workshops that aren't about changing people's mind about the specific polarising issue of political positions, but they're about changing perspectives and allowing each other to see beyond the stereotypes.

    So within those workshops, one of the things that they do is each group looks at the stereotypes that the other group believes. And then they talk about why that's not 100 percent true, but they also look for the kernel of truth.

    For example "we're all sheep";

    • They think we're all sheep and that's not true because we are discerning and we're looking at a lot of different facts and we're not just not just blindly following,
    • but also maybe the kernel of truth is that we're agreeing with many things that we don't necessarily think are a hundred percent true in order to make this decision for reasons that we've identified as being more important. And in this way we are following the crowd.

    To be more specific as an example;

    • personally I am vaccinated because I have a chronic health issue,
    • AND because vaccination in healthy people is crucial to protect vulnerable populations including front-line workers, people living in poverty, elderly folk, and those living with chronic health issues (among others),
    • AND I have grave concerns about the power that our Federal & State governments have rushed into policy with little transparency and oversight,
    • AND I have mild concerns about the longterm untested effect of the vaccines (though that is the nature of vaccines)
    • AND I weighed up those factors and decided to get vaccinated.

    So it would be reductionist to just say I am pro-vaccination and leave out the details of my concerns and decision making process.

    So we really need to take a more nuanced approach to polarising issues. And yes, you can absolutely say "we don't talk about this in our relationship", but also I would encourage you to make some space,, and be curious and really get to understand why does my friend think that? And what... Not a logic battle, I'm not talking about a logic battle... I'm talking about; what's the story behind what's happening and how did they get to the position that they're at? And what do we AGREE on?

    What Happens if We Decide to End Our Friendship? And is Ghosting Okay?

    Kia Handley:

    Look, we could talk about this forever, but news time is fast upon us... If we do decide to step away from a polarising issue, is ghosting ever the option, or we should always try to talk about it?

    Tara Thomas:

    My darling, we can do whatever we want.... You can ghost if you like, but you also need to ...

    Kia Handley:

    Please don't please don't ghost.

    Kia Handley:

    No, I, I know that you're the expert, please. Don't ghost, please. Don't ghost anyone, please. It's horrific.

    Tara Thomas:

    You need to own what the results of that are for what that means about you in relationship. And you need to own, you know, how it's gonna go down and what it's gonna mean for that other person. So there are really resourceful ways that you can do you that, and there are ways to create deeper connection even in that breakup over polarising issues.

    Um yeah, I walked that back nicely. Didn't I?

    Kia Handley:

    Yeah. You did. You did I just, look, I am...

    Tara Thomas:

    Don't do it! You're a jerk if you do!

    Kia Handley:

    You do. I mean, no, it's, it's not that. And I am, sometimes there's a time and a place, and sometimes it's just sending the message explaining yourself. So the, that person has an explanation so that they're not left with that burden. And if you don't engage after that, at least you have given them something to sit there, like from personal experience to sit there, having been ghosted and think what, what just, I, what just happened?

    It is absolutely the worst feeling, and it is the most horrific burden to carry. So even if you just give a little bit and say, I'm not engaging, here's where I'm at. This is the explanation. I think that it is, it is, it is a tough thing to do, but I think for yourself and for other people who you have had love and care for it needs to happen,

    Tara Thomas:

    That's right. It's providing the opportunity for closure and for learning and for moving forward.

    Kia Handley:

    Yeah, absolutely

    Tara Thomas:

    Agree. A hundred percent

    Kia Handley:

    Agree. Anyway, here's a new polarising issue. Let's go to the news. [both laugh]

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    For full transparency you should know: This transcript has been edited for flow, and to optimise the SEO on my website. That means that I have substituted some words or phrases so that the article is more likely to appear in a google search. In this article "polarising issues" has been optimised. I only do that in a context where the meaning will remain the same.

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