8 Ways to Discuss Politics With Family Without Trauma

How to engage in civil conversation without conflict during the holiday season.

Posted Nov 24, 2020

Jed Owen/Unsplash
Source: Jed Owen/Unsplash

This guest post is by Everett Worthington Jr.

After the 2016 Presidential elections, one-sixth of people surveyed reported losing at least one important relationship with a family member or friend due to political discussions. The eating holidays are almost upon us, and we usually get together with extended family members and often invite friends into that circle. Inevitably, about the time the pecan pie comes out, Uncle Mort starts to sound off. In fact, you might think it’s a miracle that he waited until pecan pie because last year it was over cheese and crackers just inside the foyer. This year, however, in staying safe during COVID, these extended get-togethers might be more distanced than usual.

I wrote a column one year for the Richmond Times-Dispatch about having political conversations at Thanksgiving without bloodshed. One of my pickleball buds saw the column and observed that I had left out the most important way to keep the peace at Thanksgiving—don’t invite Uncle Mort. But in a way, that can almost seem to be a cure that is worse than the disease. As we say down South, “Bless his heart, he can’t help it.” He has lots of endearing qualities. But if we cut off anyone who holds a different opinion than we do, that puts us in separate biosphere-bubbles where we don’t interact with anyone who dares to differ with us. Even people of the same basic political beliefs can be cut off because they aren’t radical enough or are too radical. Yes, sometimes it seems we almost eat our own. Family therapist Murray Bowen saw emotional cut-off as not a mature way of handling differences. Are there ways we can stay engaged with our relatives and friends who differ from us, even if they come to dinner spoiling for a fight?

Let me give you some practical suggestions for sitting with Uncle Mort, staying engaged, and yet still having a great holiday get-together. I am not advocating that you avoid all conflict—conflict is needed at times to find the best solution. Nor am I suggesting you have to get along with everyone. There are toxic people in life. Sometimes it is best to dodge them. I’m not saying you should disengage, either socially or emotionally. Instead, engage positively and be resilient to perceived attacks. I am recommending that we treat others (even those we disagree with) with love and respect.

1. Don’t presume you are right. Don’t express contempt for those who disagree. They are not ignorant, stupid, or evil. If a person treats you as ignorant, stupid, or evil, don’t respond in kind.

2. Practice coping strategies that work for you. Calm yourself. Ask yourself if it would be better to discuss this issue alone with Uncle Mort rather than in the midst of the turkey course. 

3. Cultivate political humility. That’s discussing political differences while remaining (a) aware of your own strengths and weaknesses; (b) staying teachable; (c) acting modestly (not arrogantly); and (d) being oriented to lift others up rather than put them down. Arthur Brooks, former CEO of American Enterprise and now Harvard professor, once got a 10,000-word email highly critical of his first book. “The guy even criticized Figure captions.” Instead of firing back a hot email, he had a sudden epiphany—“He read my book. Even the Figure captions!” He responded back how much he appreciated that the man had so carefully and seriously read his book, and thanked him. He mentioned that, while they might not ever fully agree on the issues, Brooks was grateful. Moments later, the man responded inviting Brooks to dinner if he ever got through the city where the man lived.

4. Pursue win-win thinking. Get at the interests (the “Why”) behind their position. Positions are often incompatible. But both your and their “Why” can be met.

5. Be preemptive. Plan topics ahead of the meal. Give Uncle Mort the benefit of the doubt as having good intentions. Plan ways to cope with times that you get triggered. You know what your hot-button topics are. Be prepared. Preemptively forgive Uncle Mort. Bless his heart. He can’t really help himself, so go ahead and forgive him ahead of time and then you have a head start for later.

6. Realize that it isn’t fair that you are expected to put in all the effort to avoid toxic arguments, and Uncle Mort isn’t doing his fair share. It’s because you care. For family and friends, let care outweigh fair.

7. Understand that reactions are complex, and often when you are getting triggered it is because you have childhood triggers, moral values, beliefs about religion and Scripture, community norms, and specific beliefs that are being challenged. We almost never get threatened because of a good argument that someone makes. It’s because we feel ego-threatened. In the same way, when Uncle Mort is wound up, it is almost always because of his triggers and his own ego threats. Try to reduce the personal ego challenge in your own delivery. Love your “enemy.” If you cannot do that, at least talk civilly. Affirm in humility that well-meaning people can have different beliefs and values. Say to yourself, I cannot win this argument. Almost no one is converted by argument. We have almost no chance of winning, but if we persist aggressively, we have a high chance of losing a friend. Say to yourself, “I don’t have to be a defender of the faith.”

8. After the people have gone home, think back. We don’t have to be a Disney musical that ends happily ever after. Just let it go. Turn it over to God. Forbear. Accept and move on. Forgive. 

If you’re able to put some of these strategies to work, maybe you’ll still be on good terms with Uncle Mort after the eating holidays. Bless his heart!

Everett Worthington Jr., used with permission
Source: Everett Worthington Jr., used with permission

About the Author: Everett L. Worthington, Jr., Commonwealth Professor in the Department of Psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University, is a licensed clinical psychologist in Virginia who has published 42 books and over 400 articles and chapters. He says that his life calling has been to do all he can to promote forgiveness in every willing heart, home, and homeland.