How to Talk with Family About Politics This Holiday Season

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.

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In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.

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About Kelly

Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.