I recently did a radio interview on the Texas Standard about preparing for political discussions with your family at Thanksgiving. Two days later, I was interviewed by the Houston Chronicle about post-election anxiety in Houston. Clearly, this election cycle generated a lot of attention and ignited a wide range of intense emotions, as contrasting as blue is from red. From disappointment, shock, anxiety, anger, fear, and despair—to relief, vindication, anticipation, hope, and excitement, just to name a few. Why was it so divisive? One explanation – the pre-election campaign got really personal. It tapped into people’s personal sense of identity, their financial security, and their sense of belonging. You could say these are “core issues” that contribute to one’s self-worth, trust in others, and sense of purpose. So, as we continue to witness how pre and post-election behaviors have illuminated the division in our country, many are wondering, where do we go from here? How can we be a more “United” States? Most of all, we are anxiously anticipating if the President-elect’s pledge to be, “President for all Americans” will result in more inclusion rather than exclusions.
As we are approaching the holiday season, we will likely be confronted with interactions that are closer to home – with our family members. The anticipation of these gatherings can generate similar fervent feelings. Are you worried about a member of your family that has the uncanny ability to push all of your buttons? Some of you may even be seriously debating if you want to go home for the holidays because you dread what might be discussed. Before you go any further, consider some of the following tips to help you stomach the post-election raw emotions and conversations during the impending holiday gatherings.
- There’s an important distinction between a dialogue and an argument. But in some families, they may be indistinguishable. If you suspect your family’s conversation is going to devolve into a cacophony of finger pointing and missile attacks, it might be best to avoid it. Set the ground rule that there will be a moratorium on discussing politics or the election results. Instead, emphasize that you are gathered for a good meal, want to reflect on happy memories, and share what you are most proud of this year. If you think your family is capable of pulling this off, no need to read any further because that is probably the best solution. If you’re not so fortunate, read on to figure out how you can digest the impassioned conversations that may inevitably ensue.
- First, take a deep breath and ask yourself, how am I feeling? Am I in an emotional place to deal with this? Or, am I too angry and hurt right now to rationally process anything? If you think you are unable, then the best thing is to take care of yourself and maybe find an excuse to sit out this year. If you must go, have some back up activities in mind, like having a good movie or card game ready, or taking a walk outside when the conversation starts to heat up inside. Planning ahead for your graceful escape is critical to taking care of yourself.
- Instead of trying to “trump” your family member’s point of view, model tolerance and respect. Strive for learning and understanding by truly listening to their perspective. Ask questions in an effort to understand why they feel the way they do or what was it about what their candidate offered that was of particular importance to them? Allow them some space to share without judgment. It’s about an exchange of ideas, not waiting until they are finished so you can disagree and prove your point. Taking the approach of, “what is important to me” versus, “how my candidate is better than yours” can really change the tone of the discussion. Indeed, tolerance is about making room for other views beyond your own.
- Have ground rules for the conversation. If it is sprinkled with playful banter, infused with some lightheartedness, and has a big serving of respect, it may be easier to digest even if there are different opinions. Acknowledge the family member’s perspective and agree to disagree. Don’t try to change their view, but approach the conversation as a dialogue to better understand each other’s views. Don’t challenge how someone feels because that is a losing battle.
- Avoid getting personal because you can get burned. Be aware of your own non-verbal gestures that may communicate judgment. If the conversation turns mean spirited, however, politely point out that you are uncomfortable with where the conversation is going and ask them to stop. If being direct is hard to do, try some humor, “did someone turn up the oven because it just got really hot in here?!”
- Ultimately, you love your family (at least most of the time), and who doesn’t want to get along with their family and feel accepted by them? In that spirit, strive to celebrate your similarities AND your differences this holiday season…and maybe others will follow suit.
In conclusion, these basic tips can extend beyond holiday conversations about political differences. Perhaps we could all make an effort to engage in more inclusive, respectful discourse with the objective of gaining greater understanding and empathy for others when differences exist. Ideally, we must strive for more inclusion and less exclusion.