Talking Politics During the Holidays

How to avoid alienating everyone.

Posted Dec 12, 2018

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash
Source: Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

It has been said that if you don’t have something nice to say, then confine your discussion to the weather.

Well, that is going to be a very short holiday meal, I think. Inevitably over the holidays—and throughout the year—we are confronted with people who disagree with us about politics. And tempers can flare, unkind words will be spoken, and possibly relationships will be broken. Does it have to be this way?

Think about how you would complete these two sentences:

  1. People who support Trump are…….
  2. People who oppose Trump are…….

Do you think that people who disagree with you are different kinds of people? Do you label them as racist, ignorant, intolerant, Fascist, naïve, out of touch, or un-American? How do you feel when people label you?

Recently at a party I sat and listened to pro-Trump and anti-Trump people talking and what impressed me is that both sides could make legitimate points. (For the record, I have always been anti-Trump.) The people at this party are people I know well, respect, and care about. I did not feel offended and I was impressed with the fact that no one became hostile, outraged or upset. But this may not characterize your holiday festivities.

The Most Common Mistakes in Political Discussions

Political issues (as well as religious issues) often lead us to escalate our emotionality and respond in ways that leave the other person thinking, “She doesn’t understand me” or “There is no use in talking to him." I must admit I have been guilty of every one of these mistakes and distortions in thinking. But I hope that we can learn from our mistakes.

  • Labeling the other person. Do you label the people you disagree with as stupid, uneducated, naïve, racist, or out of touch? Think about how this affects how people will see you. Do you really think that someone that you have known for many years is the equivalent of an evil person or a mentally defective person? Could it be that you may agree on many other things in life, but you have a disagreement about some things in politics. Is your labeling contributing to your anger and adding to your hopelessness?
  • Catastrophizing what they are saying. I notice that when I turn on the news an item of the day is not a news story, it is a “bombshell." Do you treat the fact that a family member or friend disagrees as a catastrophe from which it will be hard to recover? Are you often saying, “I can’t believe you said that?” and then treat what they said as if the world is ending? Maybe it is a disagreement and not the end of the world.
  • Taking it personally. When you are talking with someone do you take it as a personal insult that they don’t agree with you? Do you think that in order for them to be your friend they have to concur with your entire political agenda? Does this add to your sense that you are completely different from each other? What do you have in common?
  • Letting your emotions guide you. So much of political discussion is driven by emotional reasoning. This includes your belief that “If I am upset about something, then it is terrible." But you can feel upset because you would prefer that other people agree with you and feeling upset is no indication that something bad is happening. Why do people have to agree with you?
  • Discounting any positives. Do you dismiss any positives in the other person’s point of view—as if everything about the other side is awful, stupid, or incompetent? Could this make you look like someone who is incapable of reason and rationality? In order to have credibility with other people it might be useful to be more nuanced, more complex, and more balanced in your point of view. And if our two main political parties are going to work together on issues there needs to be some give and take, some compromise.
  • Overgeneralizing. Do you make gross generalizations about people you disagree with? For example, “Those people who voted for Trump are racist” or “Those people who wanted Bernie Sanders wanted communism”? About 65 million people voted for the two main candidates in the last election and this included a wide range of people on both sides. Over-generalizing means that you have lost touch with the facts.
  • Fortune telling. Are you predicting the future without sufficient facts? I know I did. I predicted Hillary Clinton would win the election and then I predicted that the stock market would collapse within the first year of Trump’s administration. I was wrong. I was living in a bubble. I was using my biases and emotions to predict the future. If you watch the cable news programs you will hear a lot of predictions—many of which never come true. I often watch these people and say to myself, “How do they know?”  They don’t. Neither do you. Neither do I.

What to Avoid When Talking with People You Disagree With

  • Sarcasm. Facebook can be a fun platform for people to vent their sarcasm and emotions, but sarcasm in everyday interactions will result in alienating people and escalating conflicts. Rather than say, “That’s the kind of thing that someone like you might think”, you might say, “Let me see if I can summarize what you are saying and the rationale that you have”. And then, rather than being sarcastic, you might say, “I might agree with you on these points but here are some reasons I don’t agree with you on these other points”. You can attack the facts and logic without attacking the messenger.
  • Name-Calling. Calling people names—like stupid, uninformed, racist, intolerant—only leads you to become more angry, more irrational, less credible and more alienated from the people around you. How do you feel when people call you names? Stay with the message, the facts, the logic, and avoid a street-fight.
  • Being Snarky. Along with the sarcastic comments that alienate people acting in a snarky way adds to everyone’s anger. Try not to be the wise-ass who looks down on everyone else, because this will only make you seem like someone that others cannot talk to. Don’t fall in love with your snarkiness. You are trying to act like a grownup.
  • Humiliation. Don’t try to humiliate people who disagree with you. Don’t treat them as if they are inferior, unworthy of respect. If you humiliate people, they will try to humiliate you. What do you think you will gain by humiliating a family member or a friend?

What You Want to Accomplish

If you can’t confine yourself to a discussion of the weather and politics does come up, keep in mind these simple positive goals:

  • Treat people with respect.
  • Allow people to disagree.
  • State your point of view as “My point of view is."
  • Summarize the other person’s point of view-and ask them if you understand them correctly.
  • Acknowledge, “I guess we disagree on some of these things.”
  • Realize that you may want to keep your relationship with this person.
  • Understand that people do change their minds.

Finally ...

  • Understand that people don’t change their minds if you are contemptuous, condescending, and hostile.