Difficult Conversations: How To Talk Politics Around The Dinner Table This Holiday
A Reasonable Guide To Talking Politics & Issues That Matter This Holiday Season
I grew up in the Midwest. In between cow towns and college campuses, I lived in a small liberal bastion in an otherwise fairly purple state. While our city was progressive and left-leaning by most counts, the larger Midwestern region—and much of my large Irish-Catholic family—could generally be characterized as conservative.
My family views life through their religion, local community, and Midwestern work ethic. I look through a global lens bent toward social justice. Neither is wrong, but they are fundamentally different and our respective world views are tinted accordingly.
Talking politics at family events has been a bit like dropping baking soda into a bowl of vinegar—messy at best, explosive at worst. For as long as I can remember, political conversations at the dinner table were avoided like the plague.
But times have changed. The stakes are higher and I’m either much more stubborn or slightly less sensible, but either way it feels disingenuous to avoid the conversation altogether when the topic is so critical to the times. Mid-term election results are in. Somehow we’re halfway through the current presidential term. And moving the needle toward social and environmental justice requires reaching across the aisle—or table—to find common ground.
So how do we tackle tough political conversation without offending relatives? Below is a framework which might prove helpful when broaching such a divisive topic among family and friends this holiday in order to have a productive conversation. Like all difficult conversations, the outcome hinges on the grace we can muster to hear their perspective and the grit we have to ask hard questions. So pony up. And pass the gravy.
1. Connect in Person
I am generally of the rule of thumb that any hard conversation should be had in-person. Texting and emails are easy and provide a sense of distance and invincibility, but they also fail to infuse the conversation with any emotional context. That’s risky.
Body language and tone are powerful tools of communication. The way in which you ask a question, the eye contact you make waiting for a response, the vigor with which you nod in acknowledgement of what you hear—these are easy and effective ways to create connection no matter how divisive the topic. Lean on these non-verbal tactics and don’t risk relationships with loved ones to the ambiguity of digital communication.
2. Reaffirm Your Respect
Start the conversation by reminding your family and friends that you respect their opinions which is why you’re curious to learn more. Nobody wants to feel under attack and nobody would vote for someone they believe to be the wrong choice.
Engaging in these difficult conversations requires first coming to truly respect the fact that they are making whatever political decision they deem best; your challenge is to figure out why. Being able to separate your relationship with the person from the outcome of this particular exchange is critical. So acknowledge the whole host of reasons why you respect them as a person and value their opinions even if you disagree with their political points of view. Within the mutual respect that establishes there is a space for healthy conflict.
3. Focus On the Issues
It can be much easier to focus the conversation on the issues at stake rather than the candidates or elected officials that our friends and family members align with. The latter is personal and therefore bound to be approached much more defensively. It’s also black and white, either you voted for the candidate or you didn’t. The issues themselves leave room for grey.
Our own stance on any given issue is generally motivated by personal experience or value systems. And isn’t that much more interesting anyway? Focus the conversation on those experiences and values that motivate their position on the issues rather than their support of any individual candidate. Find personal connections to difficult topics. From abortion to feminism, unions to bailouts, there is rarely one right way forward. Politicians come and go and policies can take an infinite number of shapes. When we frame our conversation around a timeless issue, we’re likely to align much more closely to our loved ones than we might have otherwise thought.
4. Ask Questions
Try not to lead with statements and preface everything with “in my opinion”. You don’t want to be accused of claiming universal truths the same way you would be disgusted if they claimed their opinions as fact. So lead, instead, with lots of questions.
Let one respectful inquiry inspire the next. Prod for their reasons and motivations rather than taking their voting position at face value. Boiling down our complex experience muddled by personal values and professional affiliations—it’s hard for all of us regardless of which party we support. The opportunity for connection and persuasion and forward momentum can be found not in the vote we cast for this or that candidate but in why we chose the way we did. What motivated our decision and what motivated theirs? Only once we can agree on a common vision for our country and our community can we move on to debate the merits of any particular policy to achieve that.
5. Find Points of Agreement
Pausing the defense of your own political position to acknowledge the merits of a friend or family member’s opinion is integral to healthy communication. Not to mention to keeping your relationship in tact.
Protect the relationship that is at stake by agreeing with and acknowledging their opinions as often as possible. Subtle head nodding, an affirmative “I hear you, and…”, or the occasional “I agree, but what about” can all be effective ways to deescalate the debate and neutralize emotions. Ideally you’ll also be modeling the type of communication you expect to be reciprocated. When your friend or family member begins to acknowledge your perspectives in return, you’ll begin to find to common ground on which to connect.
That connection is what you’re after, it’s the place where we can move forward together, it’s how change happens—of opinions, of votes, of policies. We have to find common ground on which to stand.
Kassia Binkowski is a Contributing Editor at The Good Trade and the Founder of One K Creative. She grew up in Madison, WI and traveled her way around the world to Boulder, CO which she now calls home. Nestled against the Rocky Mountains, Kassia supports innovative organizations from Colorado to Kathmandu tell their stories of social change through writing, photography, and design. Kassia is an eternal optimist and forever a backroad wanderer.