Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Navigating the Holidays During Politically Divided Times

These 5 tips can help you navigate holiday gatherings.

Source: AntonioGuillem/iStock

The recent midterm elections help demonstrate how divided we've become in America. It's in the news constantly, as if we need more reminders. One could rightly argue that our never-ending news feeds are part of the problem. Each side lives within "filter bubbles" in which we only access information that reinforces already held beliefs (a form of confirmation bias).

The tension seems to be in the very air we breath. Many of us have friends and relatives who are on the other side of the political fence who will be attending holiday gatherings. We might rightly feel like we could step on a landmine at any moment during family festivities. Instead of looking forward to getting together, many of us worry, or even dread, the holidays. "My uncle Joe might wear his 'Make America Great Again' hat!" or "Aunt Suzy voted for "Killary" Clinton and will argue that she should have won the election!" How do we enjoy these political gatherings and avoid heated arguments that could spoil what is supposed to be a time of celebration, enjoyment, togetherness, and thanksgiving? Here are a few strategies.

Keep the Purpose in Mind

Before attending a holiday gathering in which there is potential for division, first remember what these gatherings are all about and keep this purpose in mind. We are there to connect with others, enjoy food and conversation, and give thanks for the many freedoms and benefits that we enjoy. This includes the freedom to disagree. But holiday gatherings may not be the time to air our political grievances or try to change other people's opinions. This brings us to the next strategy to keep in mind.

Accept that We Won't Be Changing People's Views

Everyone thinks they are right, including those who hold different political views. Simply put, if the person on the other side of the political fence thought that their ideas were stupid, well, he or she wouldn't hold those political views. So, when we are thinking some version of, "How can they be such an idiot?" realize that they are thinking the same thing about us. Yes, we might think, "But we are right and they are wrong." Guess what? The other person is thinking that too!

Thus, we must accept the fact that others hold different political views than us. Importantly, this doesn't mean that we have to like or share those views. It is just an acceptance of the fact that:

  • Other people hold different views than we do.
  • Just like us, they think they are right and we are wrong.
  • We are not going to change those views by arguing with them over the holidays.

Recall Your Own Experiences

Have you ever had an argument in which you forced another person to adopt your point of view because of your infallible logic, overwhelming evidence, or passionate rhetoric? On the flip side, has anyone coerced you to change your views by arguing with you? Our own experiences tell us that we can't "win" arguments in the sense that the other person flips his or her position. It's not that we shouldn't engage in discourse and exchange ideas. But "discussions" during holiday gatherings can easily devolve into arguments. We don't want holiday gatherings to become mired in heated conflicts. Such conflicts undermine the purpose of the festive occasion. So, we must trust the wisdom we've gained from experiences that informs us that we should avoid the temptation to "correct" others' thinking, particularly during the holidays.

Find Common Ground

In the Dalai Lama's The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living, His Holiness presents a way of finding common ground that is both simple and powerful. Rather than focusing on how we are different from others, we should focus on how we are alike. Doing so creates a bond over our "sameness" rather than division over our differences.

The starting pointing for our sameness is that all people want to be happy and to avoid or reduce suffering. We also share the same emotions such as fear, happiness, anger, and pride. In addition, everyone holds their views because they believe, just as we do, that their perspectives are "good" for their family, community, city, state, country, and the world.

To put the Dalai Lama's advice into practice during holiday gatherings, we should stick with "common ground" and safe topics. This might be sports, travel, kids, movies, books, or the weather. Have a few topics in mind. If you have a partner who shares your views, have him or her be your "wingman" or "wingwoman" helping each other stick to common ground.

Have Disengagement Strategies Ready

Despite our best efforts, we might get pulled into uncomfortable discussions. We need to be prepared for this and have some disengagement strategies ready. If the situation becomes tense, we might say something like:

  • Well, I guess we'll have to agree to disagree on this issue.
  • Perhaps it's best not to get into this over the holidays. I doubt that we'll change each other's opinions on this one, and we all want to enjoy the occasion.
  • You'll have to excuse me. I need to check on some dishes cooking in the kitchen.
  • So, how are the grandchildren doing?
  • Didn't I hear that you recently went to the Grand Canyon? I'd love to hear about it!
  • Isn't there a football game on?

The Takeaway?

We are all in this crazy world together. If we can't learn to break bread and enjoy each other's company (or at least tolerate it), we are in big trouble. Despite our many political differences, we are, deep down, more alike than different. Focusing on our sameness and sticking to safe, common ground can help us make it through the holidays with family and friends who might hold opposing political views. The purpose of the holidays is one of togetherness, bonding, and celebration. We must not lose sight of that.

More from Mike Brooks Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today