6 Tips for Navigating Political Discussions at the Holiday Table


Expert Pitch

As families gear up to celebrate the winter holiday season together, a course of politics is likely their least favorite topic to dish up at the dinner table. 

But two University of Nevada, Las Vegas professors say requests to pass the salt don't have to quickly escalate into spirited debates over climate change, impeachment or immigration reform.

Katherine M. Hertlein, a professor with the Couple and Family Therapy Program in UNLV’s School of Medicine, works with clients to process their feelings and figure out how to tactfully parse through opposing views on a variety of sensitive issues — skills that may be particularly handy during the holiday season. Emma Frances Bloomfield, an assistant professor of communication studies at UNLV, has researched how people can better tailor their communication strategies when engaging on issues of the environment and climate change.

Below, they offer a few strategies for navigating potential political discord at this year’s family table.

Have realistic expectations

One of the aspects of family conversation that dysregulates us is the unrealistic expectation that family members will share our viewpoints. Part of reducing your reactivity to your family is to recognize what you can reasonably expect rather than setting yourself up for disappointment in expecting something unrealistic.

Don’t start the conversation from a point of contention

You don’t want to view your dialogue partner as inferior. It can be problematic when environmentalists or climate scientists are dismissive, or potentially patronizing to climate skeptics. That kind of dialogue can lead to climate skeptics feeling isolated and silenced. You may not agree with the skeptic, but you should still respect the person who holds the beliefs. We must listen, not just for a talking point to jump in on, but to understand the perspective they’re coming from, and what values or identities they feel are threatened by environmentalism.

Go into the conversation with a knowledge-gaining mindset, rather than a persuasive goal.

Adopt a stance of curiosity

Most people expressing their views are not doing so to purposely cause harm. Be curious about one’s stance and ask questions to fully understand their view rather than making statements yourself to keep the conversation going. This will enable you to find areas of commonality, agreement, and potential for feeling and expressing empathy.

We must listen, not just for a talking point to jump in on, but to understand the perspective they’re coming from.

Buy yourself some time

When people express views contradictory to your own, we may have a tendency to respond from an emotional rather than a balanced position. Phrases such as “I need some time to think about that; I’ll get back to you” provide you a chance to reflect on how to communicate your message in a balanced and respectful way.

Recognize the value system from which the comments originate

Part of what bonds a family is the shared set of values. While the people around the table may not agree about the way in which something should proceed, you may find that their rationale for their decision is rooted in a shared value, such as concern for children, concern for health care, etc. It may also help to consider the motivation behind one’s statements, recognizing that they are not likely intended to create harm but instead reflect good intention.

When in doubt, find a way out

If you anticipate a conversation will move you away from building a relationship and you are unable to maintain a level of psychological distance, consider using physical distance. Develop an exit plan prior to any conversation where you may anticipate difficulties. Having a plan ahead of time that you may or may not choose to use returns you to feeling like you are in a sense of control, and reduces the likelihood that you will seek to obtain control through increasing the volume or intensity of your voice.

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