I Asked A Therapist How To Communicate With Family Members Who Have Different Political Views Over The Holidays

Deep breaths. Many deep breaths.

Ah, the holidays. A time for cheer, gift-giving, turkey-eating, family-gathering, hugging, kissing, and all out scream-fighting and crying over politics. If you're anything like me, and have at least one relative who is so far on the other end of the political spectrum you cannot fathom how this person (who shall not be named) could possibly share blood with you, then the scene is all too familiar: it starts OK, but quickly devolves into an all-out attack on fundamental values, beliefs, their very core as a human being. After all, the 2016 election was about so much more than politics for many on both sides. 

But I freaking love the holidays, and refuse to let myself or anyone else ruin them because of Trump, who has already ruined enough this year (in my not-so-humble opinion). But all opinions aside, this article is for the benefit of all people, liberal and conservative, who do not want fighting over politics to put a damper on family time. So, if you are interested in learning how to have a productive and calm conversation about the recent election over the holidays, or how to avoid the topic altogether, this article is for you. 

To find out exactly how to do this, I consulted psychotherapist Deanna Brann, Ph.D., and author of Reluctantly Related RevisitedHer answers to my questions will hopefully stop those screaming matches we all love so much before they even begin. 

Here's what she said: 

Given the recent election, do you think it's a good idea to even try to broach the topic of politics with family over the holidays? 

In general, the answer is no. Leave it alone. Even if your family members are all on the same page, it will only raise people's emotions to a point and place that will create stress and tension — even if that tension and stress is within the different individuals and not directed outward to anyone specifically. At this point, everyone walks away feeling angry, agitated, and overall bad. This is not the way you want people to remember their holiday family time.

If you do want to talk about the recent election, what are some gentle ways to start a conversation about it? 

If you feel like you cannot help yourself, then ask people how they are doing at this point about the election results and then listen to what they say. Do not try to debate with them about how they are feeling, just listen and allow them their feelings. Also, do not try to interject your own thoughts about things if they differ from the person talking … listening allows them to get things off their chest and maybe feel better … debating with them about their feelings will only cause problems for you and the rest of the family who are witnessing this exchange (or even interjecting themselves into the conversation). When you debate or challenge about how someone feels, you are basically saying that how they feel is wrong; and this is never a good thing to do.

When speaking with relatives with different political views, what kind of language or body language should we avoid using in order to not come off as defensive or attacking?

First thing to remember is that no matter what you say, you will not change their opinion, so do not try. Hear them out. Ask them questions to help you understand them and their views better, but do not use challenging or confrontational language. Crossing your arms and sitting back as though you are judging them is definitely out. Use a voice that is inquisitive, not condescending.

Alternatively, what are some ways to invite productive dialogue? 

Before you invite a discussion, it is important that you look at why you are asking and what you want to achieve. The true goal in these situations needs to be one of getting a better understanding of the different family members — how they think, why they think the way they do, and how their personal situation and life experiences have influenced their viewpoints. When you have these things as your agenda, you will find the discussion will go more smoothly. People love talking about themselves and their beliefs/thoughts about things. If you allow that to happen without interjecting your biases or beliefs, you will actually learn a lot about your family that you may not have known. Remember, just because you grew up with each other does not mean your life experiences are the same. Their experiences may have led them to a different place than you.

If emotions start running high in a political debate, what are ways we can calm ourselves and each other? 

The best way to get things calmed down is 1) sit back and take a deep breath; 2) remember the concept or idea as to why you are having this discussion — to learn more about your family member(s); 3) acknowledge to your family that you realize the conversation has taken a wrong turn and that you are going to stop talking and just listen to whoever it is that is talking; 4) and then do just that. Ask inquisitive questions so you can learn more; acknowledge what they say and realize just because you acknowledge someone's thoughts does not mean you agree with them. 

How do you suggest we gently turn the conversation away from politics and transition to another topic that won't be quite so emotional? 

If someone else brings it up, hear them out, but do not engage (especially if you disagree with them). You can acknowledge what they are saying without agreeing or disagreeing with them, and once you acknowledge then change the subject … try to make it as smooth a transition as possible. For example … If someone says something about the result, acknowledge it and then a second or two later say … "Oh, I almost forgot to tell everyone ___________." (Filling in the blank with what you want to say.)