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How to Survive Political Conversations Over the Holidays

A psychologist's tips for navigating the minefield of politics.

Key points

  • The holidays are a time when political conversations can easily spiral out of control.
  • Knowing one's limits around political conversations can make it easier to set boundaries ahead of time.
  • It's helpful to have a plan for coping with emotionally-charged conversations.
  • It's important to know when to prioritize a relationship, and when to prioritize one's own self-respect.
Elisa Ventur/Unsplash
Source: Elisa Ventur/Unsplash

We are entering another unprecedented holiday season. Once again, a rapidly spreading coronavirus is threatening to overwhelm the health system. We are more politically polarized than ever. Add in surmounting holiday stress, and there is bound to be tension during the holidays.

Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) is a treatment that teaches people to handle difficult situations without becoming overwhelmed with emotions. These skills are applicable to a wide variety of circumstances — but more importantly, DBT can teach us how to have political conversations without becoming emotionally overwhelmed.

No matter where you stand on the issues, there will be disagreements. Here are four crucial tips to better handle difficult political conversations around the holidays.

1. Set a boundary ahead of time

Know your limits around politics. For some, the limit is no political discussions at dinner/holiday gatherings. For others, the limit is no name-calling or destructive communication around politics.

Whatever your limits, communicate those boundaries clearly to your family and friends in advance. When you make the request, acknowledge how it may be difficult for the other person to follow this limit. Lastly, reinforce them for following your limit — let them know how much you would appreciate it.

This can sound something like, “I would like to set a limit that we do not discuss politics over the holidays. I understand how this is hard given everyone’s emotions right now, and doing so would allow us to focus on what is important about the holiday season.”

If guests violate the boundary, you can continue to remind them of the request. You can even use the Broken Record technique, which involves repeating your message over and over again in a calm tone of voice. The power is in the repetition of your message.

2. Use dialectics

Dialectics means that two things that seem opposite can be true at the same time. Dialectics are a crucial skill when navigating interpersonal situations, especially when balancing multiple viewpoints — for example, a holiday gathering when politics is involved. Dialectics help us avoid blaming and prevent us from becoming “stuck” in conflict.

Here are the main tenets of dialectics as outlined by Rathus and Miller.

“There is always more than one way to see a situation and more than one way to solve a problem.

All people have unique qualities and different points of view.

Change is the only constant.

Two things that seem like (or are) opposites can both be true.

Honor the truth in both sides of a conflict. This does not mean giving up on your values or selling out. Avoid seeing the world in “black-and-white” or “all-or-nothing” ways.”

How to use dialectics
Avoid extreme words like “always,” “never,” or “you make me.” Move away from black-and-white thinking to “both-and” thinking.

Practice looking at all sides of a situation. Even when we fundamentally disagree with others, we can likely find a kernel of truth. Ask yourself, “What might be left out here?”

Use “I feel” statements instead of “You are,” “You should,” or “That’s just the way it is.” For example, say, “When I hear you say that, I feel angry,” instead of “You never listen.”

Accept that different opinions can be valid, even when you do not agree with them. For example, “I can see your point of view even though I do not agree with it.” *Please note that this does not apply to human rights issues.

Check your assumptions. Do not assume you know what others are thinking. Check the facts by asking, “What did you mean when you said…?”

Using these principles can help you stay calm in political conversations, knowing that you can care about people and still wholeheartedly disagree with them.

3. Balance self-respect with keeping the relationship

Interpersonal situations are nuanced, and often we need to make decisions about which interpersonal goals to prioritize. Political conversations are easier to navigate when we clarify these priorities from the outset. DBT teaches us how.

Prioritizing the relationship
Sometimes our goal is to keep the relationships that matter to us. When this is our goal, we want to act in a way that keeps the respect of the other person. When the relationship is the priority, ask yourself:

  • How do I want the other person to feel about me after the interaction?
  • What can I do to keep this relationship?

Prioritizing self-respect
There are other times when our goal is to keep our own self-respect — to act in a way that helps us feel moral and to respect our own values and beliefs. This includes acting in a way that makes you feel capable and effective, like speaking up for yourself. When self-respect is the priority, ask:

  • How do I want to feel about myself when I leave this interaction?
  • What can I do to feel that way about myself?

You get to decide when you want to stand up for yourself and your values, and when you’d rather keep the relationship. These limits will be different for every person and may vary by issue. But you get to choose.

4. Plan ahead for drama

Politics pull for difficult emotions, especially when family and friends have opposing viewpoints. Fortunately, we can plan ahead for difficult situations. We call this Cope Ahead in DBT, and it involves five critical steps.

  1. Describe the situation in objective, nonjudgmental terms. Name the emotions and actions that might get in the way of you being effective in the situation.
  2. Decide how you will cope or problem-solve in the situation. Be specific. This may include taking deep breaths, taking a walk, having a stress-ball ready, not engaging in political conversations, etc.
  3. Imagine yourself in the situation as vividly as possible.
  4. Visualize yourself coping effectively with the situation.
  5. Practice relaxation (deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, or a mindful body scan) after rehearsing.

With Cope Ahead, you can feel confident in your ability to handle precarious situations.

The takeaway

Political conversations can be incredibly infuriating, especially when they center around human rights and our identities. And yet, effectively managing political situations is a helpful skill.

Know your limits and clearly communicate them at the outset. Decide when you want to prioritize your self-respect, and when you want to prioritize the relationship. Cope ahead by developing a plan and visualize yourself successfully executing that plan. Lastly, use dialectics to understand that each viewpoint has a kernel of truth, even when we don’t agree with it (again, does not apply to human rights issues).

With these tips, you can take care of you this holiday season. Politics and all.

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Linehan, M. M. (2015). DBT® skills training handouts and worksheets (2nd ed.). Guilford Press.

Rathus, J. H., & Miller, A. L. (2014). DBT skills manual for adolescents. Guilford Publications.

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