How to Talk with Family About Politics This Holiday Season

What do you get when you mix family, the holidays, and politics? Gratitude and goodwill toward all, right? Well, actually…

election

Photo Credit: Bigstock (avemario)

A number of years ago—when marijuana was still illegal everywhere—I stumbled into a particularly heated marijuana debate between two acquaintances. They weren’t a couple of half-baked high school kids raging against The Man; they were two highly educated professionals. One man was aggressively in favor of legalizing marijuana, the other man violently opposed to it.

They asked for my opinion.

I remember feeling a sense of dread, like I was wading into dangerous waters, with hungry things swimming beneath the murky surface. The debate did not go well.

They rarely do, do they?

Today, we find ourselves at the end of a season of unproductive debates, and at the beginning of a new season. We have important problems to solve and differing opinions about how to do so. Differences between people create tension, tension leads to conflict, and conflict usually results in gridlock at best and violence at worst. But it doesn’t have to.

In fact, sometimes, conflict can be the beginning of authentic community…

The marijuana debate had ended and I was in the car on the way home with my wife when I finally got a glimpse beneath the surface of the ideological waters I’d been swimming in. She explained that the legalization advocate had recently watched his father die a slow and painful death from cancer, while marijuana was the only thing that relieved his father’s suffering.

The man’s grief had given rise to his opinions.

In contrast, the marijuana opponent had been raised in a family torn apart by drug addiction. His brother had gone through repeated treatments and relapses and it had devastated the entire family. His pain, too, had given rise to his opinions. There was something floating beneath the surface of that contentious debate:

Stories.

The stories of two hurting people. Stories of fear and pain and anguish and loss. Stories that formed their ideas and opinions and beliefs. Stories that gave birth to natural conclusions about the way the world works best. It turns out, a person’s ideas are never simply their ideas. Opinions and beliefs are never born in a vacuum; they are always the logical result of our experiences.

Every opinion is a story in disguise.

The intensity of an opinion usually depends upon the intensity of the story that gave rise to it. If you want to understand a person’s ideas, you need to understand who they are, what has happened to them, and how they’ve handled the pain life has wrought.

Every belief is a story fused to a worldview.

As a therapist, I’ve learned this in the small and hidden community of two that is the therapy room. In this space, a client can express an opinion that directly opposes the beliefs of the therapist. Yet, the therapist does not respond defensively or aggressively. Rather, he or she responds with a gentle curiosity—with a desire to understand the story that gave birth to the belief—and this spirit of curiosity is disarming.

Because, in the end, every conflict is merely a clash of conflicting stories.

If we can make space for each other’s stories in this way, then we no longer have to respond with reflexive defensiveness. We can piece together the origins of our beliefs. We can develop a deep, wise understanding of the ways in which our opinions have been formed. We can discover that conflicting ideas need not be wielded divisively. Indeed, we might even talk gracefully over gravy about a painful election season.

After all, every vote is simply someone’s story masquerading as a political position.

So, this holiday season, let’s stop debating whose opinions are more noble and start discovering whose opinions are most personal. Let’s stop talking like experts and start talking about our experiences. 

Here are the ground rules:

If the person you’re talking to is not able or willing to be vulnerable about how their story gave rise to their opinion, go watch football instead. Save yourself the headache. Likewise, if you don’t feel safe enough or strong enough to be vulnerable about how your story gave rise to your opinions, go eat turkey. Save everyone else the headache.

What will happen if we follow these rules of engagement?

I’m guessing we’ll watch a lot more football, eat a lot more turkey, and create a lot fewer headaches. But may, just maybe, in a home or two, our stories will be told, grace will be said and grace will be given, and a holiday table will become a table of true communion.

You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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Pre-Order LOVEABLE Now! You are enough. You are not alone. And you matter. These are the three fundamental truths of your existence. The problem is there is a voice inside each of us relentlessly calling them into question. And yet the answer to that voice can be found within each of us, as well. Click here to find out more about my new book—Loveable: Embracing What Is Truest About You, So You Can Truly Embrace Your Life.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Kevin

    Good morning Kelly,
    I wasn’t sure where you were going with this, and I finished the article with the thought “Exactly” after reading you guidance on what to do. Far too many are locked up, and locked in. I have been thinking more and more, that the election isn’t the problem, it is a symptom. It seems folks don’t talk to each other anymore with depth. It keeps our understanding of others, and their understanding of us, shallow.
    Long after the turkey is gone, and the political season has passed, those issues will remain.
    You are right, if either circumstances apply, it is not worth the headache.
    Peace to you and yours this season.

    • Hi Kevin,
      I agree with your comments of so many having shallow understanding of others and vice versa and I think a big contributor to this is the false information so prevalent this election season and so much misinformation being spread that has been accepted as fact. It would be so much better for us to put aside the differences and focus on the people that we are with and enjoy their company and not give each other headaches. Thanks for your comment.

  • Phyllis

    This is exactly what has been on my mind, as I’m going to my sister’s house and she is an extreme on the other side than my husband is extreme on this side. I’m sure we all agree just not to talk about politics, but in the past week she has really shut down. I’d like to ask her opinion about a few things, but unsure if I should even open that can of worms. On the other side, are we all going to be so focused on NOT bringing up politics that we can’t enjoy each other? Hoping this article helps.

    • Phyllis, you raise an important point. We can remove ourselves from a “debate” if those involved are not wanting to be transparent about the story behind their opinions, but we can’t stop others from engaging in this kind of conflict. I’d love to hear back after the holiday about how you choose to apply these ideas in that situation. My best to you.

  • Janna Bushaw Crist

    Wonderful! Exactly right…WHY do you feel this way is the only question that’s relevant.

  • gloriareading

    Love your blog. Love your thoughts. I’d just add my thought. The best way to talk with your family about politics this beautiful season is simply NOT to talk about it. I was so tired of all the angry discourse that, for the first time in my life, I put my Christmas tree up two days following the election. I needed peace and beauty and calm. That did the trick for me! 🙂 Keep up your good work, Kelly.

    • I can appreciate your decision to put up the Christmas tree also. I have been watching Christmas movies from Hallmark for the same reason — too much negativity and I don’t want to continue dwelling in it. Thanks for sharing!

    • Sadly, in many cases this will be true, Gloria, which is why I included the rules of engagement, which likely will really be rules of dis-engagement. 🙂 Enjoy that Christmas tree, and thank you for your kind words!

  • Cris M

    Hi Kelly, even from the other side of the world, I can tell how much of an impact the US elections and their result has been to our lives. Sunday, there was even a discussion at my home, over a lunch with a friend and I could sense that the conversation was going nowhere healthy, and I realized too (once again) to something I knew but so often forget: People make decisions based on an incredible number of reasons different from mine. But, this election, as the ones in my country and the ones in any other, and as any other decision that someone else may take and may affect myself too, there is one place where I still can place my opinions and is in my actions. That is what have a ripple and if goes along with other ripples, we can create a tide, even a wave, and have an impact. Doing nothing because it is not what I chose will not take me to anywhere good. At times, we don´t realize that as “citizens” we are asked for very little, but this very little is very important, and is to contribute with the creation of a better country or better world. I would give thanks for that this season!

    • Cris, this is well said, and indeed a great reason for thanks this season. I hear a lot of people on both sides of the vote talking about wanting to be more engaged through actions and not just words. An involved citizenry is a very good thing!

      • Cris M

        I love these words given by Robert Kennedy in South Africa around the Apartheid era: “Few will have the greatness to bend history
        itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events. It
        is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history
        is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve
        the lives of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a
        tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different
        centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can
        sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

  • Shel Llee Flexman-Evans

    Thank you, Kelly! We previewed Thanksgiving with a Veterans Day visit with family while the election results brought our longstanding political differences into stark relief but where we had all clearly committed to avoid talking politics. And that was what it felt like: avoidance. But as we head into a holiday set aside for thankfulness, where I know our household has been digging deeper to donate to causes close to our hearts and our family members have been doing the same in similar and very different areas, you have helped me to focus on what we already did and what we can still do.
    We already put aside what we knew would be inflammatory to discuss, not because we loathe a good fight but because we love the person we would be fighting with. We already applied our consciences, and now we need to build on our connectedness. We already realized we are living in contentious times, and now we have rare opportunities to build communities that truly honor the space that is available for all of us. And I know there is room for all of us here.
    Thank you for giving me perspective to turn our shared avoidance into something that can be better. You’re right: together in the trenches is way more timely than a mountaintop epiphany moment.

    • Shel, thank you for this. You frame it so well. Avoidance is one kind of love, but approaching each other, truly approaching each other, not just each other’s ideas, is a far greater kind of love. Blessings upon you and yours, friend, as you seek to do so!

  • Dori Anne Abbott

    Kelly, I write articles on Stress (as a ghostwriter) that have been published all over. I am currently writing one on this very topic, and am wondering if I have your permission to use some of the ideas in this post? If not, I understand, but I believe that the truths you set forth here will do even more good with an even wider and different audience. Thanks for considering.

    • Hi Dori, I’d be happy for you to draw upon these ideas! If you find yourself using actual quotes or replicating the ideas directly, I just ask that other writers provide a hyperlink back to this original article. And feel free to pass it on when you’re done. Would love to read it!

      • Dori Anne Abbott

        Thanks!

  • Jim Sando

    Dr. Flanagan: Every morning I meet with about 50 guys at a local church for a breakfast that includes a talk. Tomorrow, I am going to use your blog to open a dialogue about how we deal with family and friends at our homes for the holiday, especially when those guests hold “radically” different views on such topics like politics. The men who attend our breakfast want to be good hosts and also want to be honest about their world-view. Avoidance seems to be the most common approach, but to me it comes across and non-authentic and counter-productive to building healthy relationships. The approach you outlined gave me a way to suggest we can approach our family and friends in a way that is both honest and caring. Say a prayer this will be helpful!

  • Heather

    I’ve been asking people how they are feeling after the election: positive, negative, or neutral? And then if appropriate, for whom they voted and what was the bottom line for the vote. It’s been wonderful to open dialogue without judgment and to learn the Miriad of reasons why people choose one candidate/party over the other. And you were right, it all begins with a personal story.

  • Scott R.

    Thank you Dr. Flanagan,
    I am hoping that your words of wisdom are not limited to political discussions. I don’t believe that was your intent. There are so many topics that divide us one from the other. Perhaps a place of healing could be realized as each of us begin to listen to the other, not that we will change our point of view or opinion, but that each of us may learn to empathize with the other. I personally believe that one of the concepts of “loving one another as we love ourselves” involves listening to and feeling the pain of others, without condemnation or judgement of their views, but with a deeper understanding of the process, whether painful or joyous, that the other person has gone thru. Thank you for the reminder.

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