Avoiding political discussions at family gatherings is like playing a sport; you must always be in prime condition. To do this, consider all the possible plays, according to our Ms. Social Graces Sharon Schweitzer, J.D.
With the holidays here already, to avoid family discussions that often turn too political, I recommend several ways to be a part of the conversation and still enjoy yourself during these special gatherings. As the host or hostess, be prepared with conversation starters. Know your guests and their latest endeavors. Who is writing a screenplay or a new book? Hiking or kayaking in West Texas? Participating in a virtual symphony or opera? Part of a virtual book club? What movies and films are recommended online?
As a guest, arrive with questions for others. Be sure to compliment the chef, especially if it’s mom, and ask for recipes from those who brought or made dishes, inquire about new pets, ask about last year’s travels, offer to share a book you just finished. Keep in mind the Thanksgiving or holiday table is not the place to bring up politics or pandemics. Thanksgiving is usually a reunion of family or friends. Politics can be one of the most polarizing conversation topics. It is difficult to predict how your family or friends will respond to a political matter, so try not to initiate.
If a political discussion occurs, remember the most productive conversations are fact-based, so only engage if you have done your research. Cite specific research journals, such as the Harvard Business Review or SAGE Journals, rather than stories from partisan news networks, which may have some bias.
If you must discuss the latest twist in the global pandemic with a family member, consider a private conversation. Avoid doing so at the dinner table. Productive political discussions are all about diplomacy. Avoid singling someone out to ask for their opinion in front of a group. Not everyone is comfortable openly sharing their political leanings. Even if everyone seems to initially agree on the topic, quieter guests might hold back opposing views and feel isolated.
On the other end of the spectrum, some might be quick to debate and form two opposing groups. Despite temptations, avoid taking sides. Instead, try to acknowledge the importance of the debate and be the peacekeeper. If you are inclined to become defensive or upset in political debates, politely step away from the conversation and ask the host what you can do to help with preparations. With sensitive subjects such as Covid-19, the upcoming election, and climate change, avoid engaging in a heated debate to make your point. Intense approaches may alienate your family and make them feel attacked.
If you do begin spiraling, take a deep breath, and remind yourself of the occasion: Thanksgiving is a time for giving thanks. Thank others for offering different outlooks on the topic at hand. Agree to disagree. Do not be afraid to address the fact that you are having trouble remaining civil with this political topic. Instead, suggest that Uncle Joe share photos of his new kitten. Opinions do not change in one conversation–they often don’t budge after dozens. Even if you have presented the facts and research, and engaged with diplomacy–your family member is unlikely to change their opinion.
Cognitive Dissonance is the psychological theory that the mental discomfort that arises when a person is presented with a fact that negates their opinion, it ironically strengthens their belief rather than causes them to call it into question. We all want to share facts and open our dissenter’s minds–but it is not as simple as sharing proven facts. Psychology experts explain that clues come from two areas of study: Self-Affirmation and Cultural Cognition. Both areas suggest people cling to their viewpoints because the walls of their opinions are like battlements. These battlements keep the good people inside us safe from the enemies outside―those with differing opinions.
Here are a few more tips I recommend:
Prepare before your arrival: Get your game face on just like pro athletes do. Tell yourself that you will not engage in a destructive argument. Decide to enjoy the holiday and tune out the acerbic rhetoric. Your host and hostess will thank you.
Listen more than you talk: Respectfully listen to your family’s opinions 80% of the time. Then if you must speak, plan to ask questions 20% of the time. Allow your family to express themselves without judgment or argument. Thank them for sharing their thoughts about the political climate.
Respectfully ask them to read your research.
For example: “Aunt Megan, I appreciate you sharing your thoughts on ___. It is true that the ______. Please read about the role of ____ and ___ in your research. I can email a great article from __. Thanks for listening.”
“Uncle Ryan, I appreciate your criticism of the _____ position. However, have you read the latest ____ statistics report for the ____ rate in the U.S.? The rate among ____ is ____ to a ____%. Thank you for listening to my point of view. I appreciate you.”
Use discretion when discussing politics with family.
For example, avoid using recent pandemic deaths, tragedies, shootings, and massacres as evidence for a political position. These tragedies are emotionally charged for many people, and best avoided during family gatherings. You want your relationships to last longer than the pandemic.