Family. We love them, but we don’t always agree with them. In an increasing polarized country, differences of opinion have become vast and bitter. When those differences happen with relatives, we face a particular challenge. It’s easy to ignore posts on Facebook, but the holidays put us in the same room with our relatives where conversations can easily escalate to interrupted meals, anger, and hurt feelings. Even though we know they are coming, we often are not sure how to prepare for them. Just like you give your house a deep cleaning before the arrival of Thanksgiving guests, prepare ahead for potential controversy, especially in 2020, given the election results may or may not have been determined yet.
1) Seek to Understand
It’s coming; that comment, or statement that launches the discussion. In anticipation, spend some focused time getting ready. Once you’ve given some thought to why something matters to you, take time to consider the other side. Know what family members care about and why. In particular, think about the primary perspective of each side on the same or overlapping issues – people on the right use words like security, responsibility, whereas people on the left include words like inclusion, equity, and equality. Speaking in language that will resonate with your audience is important. Remember, most people respond poorly to being put on the spot, so knowing what you want to say in advance of the inevitable will help dial down the “fight or flight” impulse.
Biggest tip: Ask questions such as: “Would you mind telling me more about why this matters to you? I care about your perspective and even if we do not agree, I do want to really understand, because if you care about this, I care about it.”
2) Focus on values and what you have in common
The issues dividing us these days are enormous, and many have been reduced to slogans. To truly engage with a loved one, try to focus the conversation on a specific point. Instead of “Defund the Police” or “All Lives Matter,” talk about the pros and cons of community policing or the benefits of including social workers in response to homeless or mental health emergency calls. These are concrete matters where the conversation can explore what values matter and what a better future looks like, which can be exciting to both of you. Be careful when it comes to facts; throwing out facts can actually put someone on the defensive and data suggests that your audience will double down on their viewpoint and not be open to discussion. In picking a topic, be explicit and intentional with the family member, so that they understand that you want to engage, and you want to do it in a way that might move the conversation forward.
Biggest tip: Find out what you agree on more – start with values. When all else fails, continue to ask questions. This keeps your family member engaged. Just because you are listening, it does not mean you agree. Remember, you love the person, you just may not like their position on an issue.
3) Watch out for Triggers – Yours and Theirs
With hot topics come hot buttons, and words matter. For example, the right/left political divide these days has a broad range of demonizing terms when referring to the other side. For most people, their political, social and religious beliefs are extremely personal, so an insult to their position (or their politician/party) is experienced as an insult to the individual. Needless to say, attacks will assure a bitter exchange that can have a major impact on your relationship. Be careful of back-handed insults like “everyone who cares about the environment agrees that …” This sort of statement implies that anyone who doesn’t agree, doesn’t share the same values. Similarly, when preparing for that divisive conversation, consider your own triggers, and be prepared for them with a response like: “Can you rephrase that without using that term?” If the goal of a divisive conversation is to listen with respect, learn the “why” of a loved one’s perspective, and possibly bridge differences, don’t forget that a careless phrase can be remembered for a long time.
Biggest tip: Breathe! When anyone feels threatened, whether it is their feelings being hurt or their identity challenged (political party), they go into fight/flight/freeze mode. The brain will literally refuse to collaborate because it has gone into survival mode. Remind people: “I am not here to change your mind, I am here to listen.” You may want to change their mind, but that won’t happen in one conversation anyways. So for now – just listen.
4) Set boundaries and reward good behavior
Before diving into the meat of a challenging topic, take a pause to set out a few ground rules. This helps avoid a knee-jerk response and sets a good tone for the conversation. Include rules against personal attacks, staying on topic, avoiding triggers, and limiting the amount of time that will be spent. During the discussion, express appreciation for the efforts being made, such as: “Thanks for acknowledging that point, it really matters to me.” You can even try to make a game out of it. While the rest of the family has to listen to the discussion, consider appointing a judge to reward the person who sticks to the rules.
Biggest tip: Acknowledging you are not trying to change a person’s mind, just listen. This reassurance can help keep them calm and does not put them on the defense. Setting rules like – be respectful, anyone can press pause, and that reminding them the relationship is more important than the issue is key. You may even want to set a timer – just discuss politics for 5 minutes. Everyone gets a turn and does not get interrupted.
5) Have an exit strategy
For all your preparation, it may be that your relative isn’t willing to play nice, or you simply find yourself getting upset by the direction of the discussion. If the conversation is escalating, be prepared to press pause or pivot. A respectful – but firm – request to change the subject will hopefully suffice. You can be explicit about your intention. For example, let’s say the conversation feels like a monologue and you are the receiver, i.e. the punching bag. It is important to clarify you are interested in a dialogue, and if that is not on the table, you have two options. You have a few alternate topics in mind that can diffuse the situation. You can listen and ask questions, and not engage beyond that. If neither of those works, what are a few options? Are you going to help with the dishes and just walk away? Have you asked another relative to intervene? Have a plan that you can rely on in the heat of the moment.
Biggest tip: Continue to breathe and remember that ultimately your family does love you; there just may be some pretty big reasons to not like them at the moment. Help them understand that you want to protect the relationship and therefore just need a break.
I think the suggestion that one shouldn’t discuss certain issues over dinner is a Band-Aid solution that does little to help our relationships. The differences are still there, and they can poison an important connection with a loved one. The goal in these conversations shouldn’t be to win or lose. Instead, plan to listen because you care about the person, and you want to learn the context of their belief. Finding points of commonality or simply gaining a deeper understanding of your relative’s perspective can be a rewarding, engaging experience. It means holding back a little to keep track of the direction and tone of the conversation so that it can be held in a respectful and potentially productive manner. This doesn’t happen without planning and intention. Please download the chapter, Politics at Thanksgiving, from my upcoming book at my website, www.brandmirror.com, for more insights and information.
© 2020 Jennifer Dalton
Jen Dalton is a personal brand specialist with entrepreneurship in her DNA. She helps business owners and executives define how they show up as leaders, make the most of their strengths and tend to their legacy, growth and visibility. The author of two books, The Intentional Entrepreneur, and “Stop Hiding, Listen,” which comes out this December. Jen is a frequent speaker, podcaster and “Purpose Sherpa,” Jen is a critical resource for any person or company that wants to define their brand and differentiate themselves in authentic, credible, and relevant ways to the market.