by | Nov 14, 2017

As we approach the beginning of the holiday season, many families are struggling to be with relatives who hold different political views than their own. According to the New York Times, in 2016, thousands of families decided not to gather for Thanksgiving, given the differing points of view that family members had during the election.

There is no question, of course, that our politics are the most polarizing in memory, creating fear, anger, and righteousness at a level we may have never seen before. The impact of that polarization is being felt throughout our culture. Our deeper conversations about why that is will continue for a long time, but as we approach the holidays, it’s worth asking – are those differences worth breaking up families?

In the spirit of maintaining our familial relationships, here are 10 ways we can prevent our political differences from becoming personal losses.

1. Take some time to process the emotions and be with them.
Recent events may leave people in a high state of emotion, especially fear and concern, our most powerful motivators. These emotions, left unchecked, can cause us to act in counterproductive ways. It is important to process those emotions in a healthy way. That doesn’t mean dumping them on loved ones, even though we can sometimes have our strongest feelings towards family members. Find another friend, or if necessary professional support, to try to get grounded before interactions with loved ones.

2.Create an agreement as to the purpose of the conversation before you get into it.
People come into conversations with different agendas. When we know we are heading into an incendiary topic, it’s especially important to be clear what kind of a conversation it is: A debate? An argument? An attempt to understand each other? Be sure you are on the same page. There is nothing wrong with a strenuous debate, as long as that is what all parties are signing up for. It may feel a bit “formal” or “artificial” to have agreements, but when we are engaging in difficult conversations, these kinds of agreements are critical.

3.Recognize the difference between politicians and their followers.
This is especially important now. Since the 2016 presidential election, I have made a point of interviewing dozens of people who voted for both presidential candidates to better understand their choices. What I have found is that people have many reasons. There is almost no uniformity in the way people voted. In fact, 55% of the people I interviewed who voted for President Trump, said they voted more against Secretary Clinton than for Trump.

While we may have disliked the candidates in 2016 even more than most, many people found themselves in a position of choosing the “lesser of the evils.” They may have voted for a candidate and still not agreed with much of what they stood for. Don’t assume that your family member supports everything about any particular candidate or party. Try to understand the value system that informs their point of view. (I highly recommend reading Jonathan Haidt’s, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion if you want to get a better understanding of how conservatives and liberals see the world). It can be helpful (although admittedly painful at times) to tune into the media world of the “others.” We live in a society in which our access to information is so polarized that most people live in echo-chambers of their own ideology. Watch the other news sources. Try to restrain from “defriending” people who don’t agree with you on social media (unless, of course, they are being abusive). Listen to understand, rather than to prove yourself right.

4.Reach out to moderates on the other side of the spectrum and start seeing if you can build coalitions of understanding.
While we may have different ideas as to who should be elected or in power, there are many people on both sides who find the level of antipathy upsetting and want to break down the barriers and connect with their loved ones. Focus on those people, not the ones who are looking for a fight.

5.Don’t gloat if your candidate is in power, and avoid predicting the end of civilization as we know it if yours lost.
The high state of emotion that we are in contributes to excessive reactions. If you spent the past year (or more) arguing with people about politics, you may well be highly charged. Try to avoid allowing those feelings to get the best of you. That doesn’t mean not being vigilant or attentive; it means resisting the tendency toward hyperbole.

6.Don’t continue an argument that will get you nowhere.
If you find yourself in a never-ending cycle of arguments that you know are never going to be resolved, call a halt to them. Nothing will be gained by continuing to batter each other.

7.If you need to vent, do so with people who share your view, or those who you know you can release it cathartically with, without damaging a relationship.
Sometimes it can be helpful to find a friend and empty out some of your more intense feelings in a safe place. This may be as simple as having them listen while you say whatever there is you need to say. Then take a couple of deep breaths. It’s like a tea kettle letting off a little steam. You will likely be less easily triggered. You may also have friends or acquaintances who represent the other point of view, but enjoy a spirited debate and don’t take it personally. Use those relationships to allow yourself to let it out.

8. At holiday gatherings, if you encounter somebody who insists on gloating, you may just want to tell them that “we’ll just have to agree to disagree” and move on to somebody else.
Simply not responding will often quell the storm. If not, saying something like “I know that your candidate is in power, and it is sad and frightening (or other emotion you’re feeling) to me. Having said that, I have no interest in being berated by you so I am ending this conversation.” Or “When I hear you, it feels like you are saying that you are superior to me. Is that what you are intending to say?”

9. Ask questions that are future oriented
This is important. It is almost impossible to come together on past-based questions because the past cannot be changed. However, future-based questions can cause us to think in a completely different way. (e.g. “I know that you are excited about your candidate’s victory, I’m curious what you think we should all do together to deal with the explosion of hate crimes that has emerged?” or “I know that you are disappointed with your candidate’s loss, I’m curious how you think we might all be able to move together to heal our country?”)

10. Have a conscious conversation for understanding.
Ultimately the best thing we can do is to focus on understanding each other, rather than convincing each other. One way to do that is to use this format that is adapted from Elizabeth Lesser.

First, agree on ground rules:

Don’t persuade, defend, or interrupt. The purpose of this conversation is not to “win.”
Be curious, authentic, and listen, rather than talk at each other.

Then, ask each other these five questions, giving each person the same amount of time to answer each one:

1. What is something that you appreciate about the other person?

2. What are some of your life experiences that have led you to feel the way you do?

3. What issues deeply concern you? (This is a critical question because fear is almost always underneath anger at some level. If we can share what our fears and concerns are, we will create a greater sense of understanding)

4. What have you always wanted to ask someone from “the other side”? (This question gives people a chance to ask the questions that they may be making assumptions about and, again, gain a deeper understanding of what the other person’s motivations are.)

5. Is there anything you would like to say to “clean up” the past? (Many people have said things during the campaign that were hurtful. We can hold different opinions but still take responsibility for the pain we have caused. Apologize if you feel regretful that you lost your cool and said things that you now regret.)

I’m not suggesting that it will be easy to deal with our differences at a time when politics are so divisive. Save the need to be “right” for another time. Take the time this Thanksgiving to be thankful for your family and the other gifts in your life. Researchers in positive psychology have found that one of the most consistent paths to happiness is to practice gratitude. Remember, elections come every two to four years, but family is forever.

Have a wonderful holiday!

Howard Ross is a Principal Consultant and the Founder of Cook Ross. He is a lifelong social justice advocate and is considered one of the world’s seminal thought leaders on identifying and addressing Unconscious Bias.