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Don’t let political disagreements end relationships; it’s okay to be ‘frenemies’

October 24, 2016

Two Frenemies Project participants
Two Frenemies Project participants with very different opinions discuss immigration during the workshop.

A common reaction to political disagreements on social media is to ‘unfriend’ or stop following a person or family member with views you don’t like.

Virginia Tech’s Todd Schenk suggests a different solution: “We need to find ways to empathize and understand each other, despite our differences, if we are going to solve the myriad of challenges we face. Instead of avoiding, we should think about how we can coexist. Unfriending those that disagree with us may be the path of least resistance, but it's often a dead end,” said the assistant professor in the School of Public and International Affairs.

The  Frenemies Project

Schenk recently tested this theory by putting students and other Virginia Tech affiliates with opposing views on the issue of immigration in the same room for a workshop. The Frenemies Project explored how facilitated dialogue among individuals that hold negative perceptions of, and would rarely interact with, each other can foster mutual understanding and respect, and increase social capital. Schenk and students involved found that the experience increased empathy and mutual understanding. While they still had different opinions, the humanization of participants made them feel more willing to find compromise.

Quoting Schenk

"The vitriol and animosity this election season really have reached new heights. It is about much more than strong and healthy disagreements around policies as the mud slings both on the debate stage and around the water cooler. It seems like an important time to underscore the importance of empathy. That is, we need to find ways to appreciate each other's humanity, even when we disagree."

Schenk is an assistant professor in the Urban Affairs and Planning Program of the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech. He has extensive research and consulting experience working on environmental policy and planning, and collaborative governance issues in North America, Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

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