Alexa Valentine, a law student home for the holidays, sits across the table from family members on an opposite side of the political spectrum. It is a dilemma faced by many this holiday season, especially after a historically polarized election with ongoing unrest.
“In some ways, I want to avoid politics all together,” Alexa says, echoing recent research showing that roughly 45% of Americans have stopped discussing politics with someone as a result of something they said online or in person.
“In a perfect world, I’d love to be able to sit down and have a productive conversation with them. I’d love to hear their side, and for them to be open to hearing my side. But it’s a risky move around the holidays,” says Valentine.
Turns out, you can talk politics at the dinner table, even on Thanksgiving. Bear the following pieces of advice in mind, and you’ll be on your way to constructive discussion.
Begin with introspection
Be mindful of your own intentions when striking up or becoming involved in a political conversation.
Set your own goals for the conversation, and ask yourself what you are hoping to achieve by sparking a political conversation over the holidays. Is this going to be a tool to ease tension, by getting to know the reasons for your loved ones’ beliefs? Will you use the conversation as an opportunity to get to know each other better? Are you genuinely curious how everyone is feeling post-election? Whatever your reason for broaching the subject, be sure that you are aware of your own intentions going into the conversation.
A word of caution: do not go into the conversation with the goal of changing anyone’s mind. Especially in today’s political climate, people’s political beliefs are set in stone — realistically, you are not going to recruit anyone to make a party switch.
Psychology Today’s Sue Scheff advises realistic expectations. “Understand that as much as you attempt to have them see things your way, you will likely never change their mind — same as they are probably not going to change your mind.”
If you recognize that your intentions are to point out flawed thinking, or if you are less than willing to hear their perspective, maybe you should avoid a political conversation and free up your family time for a more productive topic.
Physically calm yourself
Go into the conversation with a calm mind, and also a calm body.
“It turns out that our bodies don’t necessarily know the difference between the saber-toothed tiger and a shocking news event or a heated conversation with another person,” says Tania Israel, author of “Beyond Your Bubble: How to Connect Across the Political Divide: Skills and Strategies for Conversations That Work.”
If you can physically calm yourself, you can prevent outbursts from both sides.
Slowing your breath will take you out of fight-or-flight mode and allow you to steer the conversation in a productive direction. Your calm demeanor can then serve as an indicator to your loved ones that you come in peace, so they do not need to be on defense during the conversation.
Israel explains, “We can physically ground ourselves by noticing the feeling of the chair underneath us or by touching our own arm and paying attention to that.”
These techniques are paramount to a successful set up for an often tricky conversation.
Listen and ask questions
“Conversation” is defined as an exchange of ideas. If you genuinely want to engage in meaningful conversation, you will not be the only one doing the talking.
Be ready to listen, and to get them talking, ask questions. Be curious not only about what they believe, but also why. Approach them with curiosity, rather than accusation, and get to know their perspective.
Listen actively, and try to avoid coming up with a rebuttal while they are speaking. Remember, this is not a debate, this is a chance to understand your loved ones on a deeper level.
Pro tip: If you are having trouble reaching a true understanding of where your loved one is coming from, try this common marriage counseling strategy — repeat back in summary what you believe they said. This will elicit a clarification, often with more detail, simultaneously indicating that your intentions are to achieve a deeper understanding of their perspective.
Stay positive and respectful when sharing your ideas
When it’s time to share your side, be mindful of not only what you are saying, but also how you are saying it.
According to Suzanne Degges-White, Ph.D., it can be especially helpful to limit your political commentary to objects and ideas, rather than their human proponents. “Criticize political actions or legislative issues, don’t criticize the family member who supports them,” she explains.
That goes for political figures as well. “Family members feel allegiance to and a sense of shared identity with their candidates and officeholders just like an enthusiastic sports fan tends to do. When you insult their ‘pick,’ family members feel as if you have insulted them.”
Vaile Wright, American Psychological Association’s senior director of health care innovation, suggests the use of “I” statements instead of “you” statements when discussing politics. “For example, you could say ‘I have a lot of concerns about this election, and how it might affect health care because I have a preexisting condition.’ Keep it about you and your feelings and about the policies, not the people,” Wright explains.
Try to find common ground
Strong political stances usually stem from issues that affect an individual personally. Who better to find common ground with than loved ones, who likely come from a similar background as you, belong to the same demographic, and have similar needs?
Although some family members may favor political approaches that differ from your personal beliefs, at the root of policy and candidate platforms are often the same core issues. You may be able to use a political conversation to find that you share similar goals. Use this as an opportunity to learn more about one another, rather than to criticize your differences.
If the conversation is starting to go downhill into argument, Dr. Degges-White shares this recommendation: “Find some link that is a natural segue and brings the topic home to a shared memory or family narrative that puts a positive spin on a topic that is spinning into chaos.”
If all else fails, one thing you can all agree on: a shared passion for politics.
Agree to disagree
Chances are, you are going to arrive at the end of the conversation with the same level of disagreement that you each brought to the table.
Even though you may not have reached any agreement during the conversation, you can still celebrate the fact that both sides will have listened to and respected one another (hopefully!) throughout the dialogue.
Whenever you feel that the conversation is due for an ending, you can conclude with an acknowledgment that although you may not agree on everything, your respect for your loved ones supersedes your opposition.
Scheff says, “It’s time to have mutual respect for each other no matter what political affiliation we are, and choose compassion over conflict.”