By Katlin Cilliers | Staff Writer
The holidays are coming up, and with them, family gatherings and scrumptious meals. Some of us might jump at the chance to eat and socialize, while others fear this time of the year. At some point between forkfuls of roast turkey and your auntie’s delicious casserole, “she” – The Dreaded Political Talk – might sneak up at the dinner table and make the whole event quite indigestible.
When political talk leads to diverging views between family members, our first response may be to go full-out “fact-blurting-machine” on whoever brought it up, reciting stats, reliable sources and research results. All of those obviously fall on deaf ears, making us look like annoying know-it-alls.
So how do we deal with political differences at the family dinner table without becoming sarcastic or developing high blood pressure from the stress added to the overly salted gravy?
Avoid it altogether
The first strategy would be to just not go there at all. Simply setting clear boundaries and stating that we’d rather not talk about politics, shifting the conversation to lighthearted themes such as music, films or anything cute or funny from the Internet. (Hint: this jealous panda can help divert attention from politics for a while.)
Here’s a challenging option: Keep in mind that sometimes, people just want to be heard. So listen to what your relative has to say and use the power of healthy silence in your favor. A firm yet gentle “I don’t really have much to add to your point. But thank you for sharing your views,” might grant that angry uncle with the space he needed to vent his political opinions while keeping conflict at bay.
This requires a bit of self-control, since it’s easy to fall into the trap of wanting to rebuke arguments, especially when they are not factual. (Note to self: whatever you hear, do not roll your eyes.)
If you do decide to go down the “Political Talk” road …
Remind yourself that people cannot communicate when they feel threatened. When we disagree with family members about politics and openly show it, it quickly sends our interlocutors into the defensive, breaking communication and creating rifts. In the end, that well-thought-out point as to why [insert politician name here] is/was bad for the country never gets heard because we’re busy blocking out information that makes us uncomfortable.
Use empathetic communication
This is a sequence designed in psychology that can be used in any social interaction. It may work wonders when applied to politics, since it aims to get people open thanks to its nonjudgmental approach. The basic steps are:
Get them talking. Rely on several open-ended questions (What do you think about … ? How do you feel about … ? Why do you think that is … ?) and follow up with personalized questions surrounding the theme. For instance, when talking about topics such as finances or the national economy, asking further questions about how that is working out in their own life will give them a sense of being heard and cared about.
Make an effort to really listen rather than planning what your next argument is. According to research, the human brain is capable of understanding speech up to 600 words per minute. But the average speaker can produce between 100 and 150 words. What happens to the room for those other 350 words? It gets filled with our own conclusions (re: judgment) about what is being said.
Use that extra space – the difference between what your brain can absorb and what you are actually hearing – to be mindful of the message, intention, opinion, tone, emotion so that you can make the most of the next step.
Then, reflect what you heard back at them by paraphrasing and highlighting emotions around the political issue. Use key sentences such as, “It sounds like you’re pretty upset about the current [insert political rift here]” or “What I’m hearing you say is that you’d like [topic] to be different than what it currently is?”
That will show your family member that not only you care, but you also understand them at a deeper level, instead of being on the lookout for the flaws in their political perceptions.
Reinforce the areas where you agree. Finding points in common can be a strenuous task but essential nonetheless. Even when coming from entirely different angles, there may be points of agreement. For instance, when talking about the current employment situation, the underlying premise is that everyone would appreciate it conditions were better for everyone. Find that hook and stick to it.
Rely on the power of stories. Facts and data lead nowhere when people are set in their beliefs, but they love a well-told story. So, to make the point about how healthcare should be a a universal right – if that’s what you’re going for – why not think about examples of when someone in the family needed hospital services and take it from there?
Avoid buzzwords that get people on the defensive
In the online world and among certain groups of like-minded people, certain words are often used, and their meanings, mutually understood. But, when talking to family members in different ends of the political spectrum, these words might cause them to become defensive. They may fly into a rage or clam up to anything we have to say.
Broad concepts – “privilege,” “racism,” “bigotry,” or other terms that are often twisted or used out of context, such as socialism and neoliberalism – can easily be distorted or taken personally. Dinner time is not the most yielding environment for a history or sociology class; too much to cover in too little time.
Respect and tact will go a long way
Making the most of family time boils down to exercising the power of choice. We can choose to prove our relatives wrong with fact checkers available at our fingertips and other reliable sources; we can lecture people on the history of civil rights movements, or on the five reasons why a free market is key to success in life. But in the end of the day, is the point to “win” the conversation or have a pleasant, stress-free time among family?