top of page
  • waynebrownlcsw

Bridging the Divide: Navigating Family Political Conversations with Grace and Mutual Respect

As we head into the silly season of a highly contentious US Presidential Election, the summer may feel both surprisingly short, and interminably unending.  As we move toward an election with both candidates having higher rates of unfavourability than favorability, and ¼ of the country dislikes both candidates, arguments seem to only grow in ferocity, especially with people we love.   

So what happens when you love a person, or live with a person where all people feel they are supporting the least bad option, and still all sides passionately disagree with who the other person plans to vote for?

The upcoming newest voting bloc is one of the most politically engaged generations since post-World War II, and they feel their values are inscrutable.  The older generations are arguing, ‘we’ve seen more, why wont you listen to my enduring wisdom?!’ 

What are we left with?  Generations of family members who are shouting loudest to be heard, by people who are also trying to shout loudest to be heard.  But who is listening when all sides are shouting?  Simply put, no one.  This essay deliberately avoids vocalizing political positions, as we work to offer strategies to foster communication.  If you are seeking to discuss ways to manage disagreement on specific topics, please contact our office.

Let’s examine some strategies to grow communication.  If ‘winning at all costs’ has never resolved a single argument, maybe it is time to try something new?

 

 

Rules for Effective Communication While Arguing Politics with Family

 

1.      Establish Ground Rules

Þ    Respectful Tone:  Conversations are best had when speaking with one another, rather than speaking down to, or yelling in the face of...  Just because your loved one is younger does not mean they know less.  Just because they are older does not mean they are out-of-touch or indifferent to your concerns.

 

Þ    Assume Mutual Intelligence:  Just because you changed their diapers does not mean your 20-year old does not know anything.  Equally, just because they changed your diapers does not mean they are clueless as to modern concerns.  You both are grown, sentient beings, seeking to be honored with mutual respect.  If there is a political topic you both are strongly passionate about, it is fair to assume you both have unique knowledge on this topic.  As Ralph Waldo Emerson stated, 'In my walks, every [person] I meet is my superior in some way, and in that I learn from him.' If you want your child showing you respect, first you must model respect.

 

Þ    Time Out: If conversation is becoming contentious and shifting to anger, if you sense yourself straining to not say something wildly inappropriate just to win the argument, call for time out.  Taking a break and letting everyone settle down is reasonable. 


 

Þ    Assume Best Intentions; Ask Clarifying Questions:  Your loved one is passionate on this topic, there must be a reason.  If you do not know why they feel so strongly oppositional, ask!  They may never persuade you to side with them, but they might!  Either way, understanding why your loved one disagrees with you facilitates dialogue.

 

 

2.              Active Listening

Þ    Listen With Both Ears:  When we are deep in an argument, there is a tendency to listen only for points to build a successful counterargument.  When we do this, we are not actually hearing anything meaningful being communicated.  Both sides must agree to give the other side full attention, stop and think, then respond.  This is not your high school debate class; you are not scoring points by being fastest in responding. 

Listen.

Consider.

Formulate response.

Respond in a way that considers your loved one’s perspective.

Listen to their response. 

 

Þ    Clarifying Statements. If your family member says something you are hearing as inflammatory, you have the right to ask for clarification.  Simply paraphrase what you heard the other person say, as you heard it.  This demonstrates active listening, and offers the opportunity to clarify any miscommunication.  Additionally, perhaps your loved one hears their words back at them and agrees it is what they said, but that maybe it is not actually how they feel.

o   Politics are heated right now, leave room for reconsideration.  Having your own values is important, and being open to new ideas is crucial.  Just because you learned from your father’s father’s father that Value A is the only moral option, and anything else is heretical does not mean the older generation was correct because they were born first.  Conversely, it does not mean that the older generation was intentionally or unintentionally mean or malicious.  Your elders can be taught new values, if your positions are sound, and well-articulated.

 

 

3.              Seek Common Ground

Þ    Where are our shared values?:  When discussing contentious issues, do you have shared values?  Can you recall and honor those shared values?  Focusing on family values that are important to both of you, or goals you both wish to achieve can be meaningful in conversation.  Topics could include welfare of your family, helping to improve the community you live in, or economic stability for the family.


Þ    Where Do We Agree?:  Regardless of the topic, it is likely possible to find commonality.  Even if the agreement is broad, or on an unimportant topic, having a place of commonality to build from is helpful in effective communication.  Whether you are arguing over marriage rights, international militarism, book bans, the environment, who pays too much in taxes, the environment, or something else, what do you agree on?  ‘Well, we are both want to make sure that the next generation has more opportunities than we had growing up.’  Okay, so you both have idealistic dreams, with disagreement on how to get there.  It is easier to have meaningful conversation if both can acknowledge a premise of idealism for both sides.

o   Notable exceptions: If your family member(s) cannot come up with any civilized common ground or shared values, you are not obligated to sustain debate.  If you are feeling personally targeted, or that sustaining conversation out of familial obligation is detrimental to your mental health, you have the right to disengage.



4.              Be an Educator, Not a Drill Sargent

Þ    Educate your loved one(s):  When disagreement is passionate, make your most cogent argument in an informational way.  Using credible informational sources, explain in an informational, inclusive way.  Persuasion is more likely to happen when all people feel the discussion is based on universally accepted insights. 


Þ    Allow yourself to accept new information:  When information is being exchanged, all

parties benefit from feeling all sides are provided a chance to offer insights, and have their insights received. 


Þ    Do NOT scream down the other side: While passion is natural, yelling, condescension, dismissiveness, meanness, or other antisocial communication styles undermines all of your arguments, no matter how brilliant they are.  When you want to land a sucker punch, take a breath instead.  Consider whether you would accept this comment coming from the person with whom you are disagreeing.  

 

 

5.              Emotional Regulation Speaks without Words

Þ    Above all else, watch your temper:  Family knows how to push buttons, sometimes better than anyone else.  The problem is, if you are arguing angry, your logic becomes cloudy.  Cooler heads make more cogent arguments.  Focus on grounding, focus on taking deep breaths.  The more clearly you are thinking, the more persuasive you will be. 


Þ    Make sure your body language is in-check:  Are you communicating hostility in your face?  Are your shoulders crouched?  Do you look like you are getting ready to run screaming from the room?  This will impact your ability to think clearly.  Moreover, you will be telegraphing to your family member how upset you are.  Slow down, take a breath.  Let your shoulders relax, unscrunch your face.  It will help, I promise. 


6.              What is a successful conclusion?

Þ    Figure out when the argument is over:  At some point, your argument must come to a conclusion.  Whether it is through sheer exhaustion, or some other reason, this argument will wind down.  Assuming the premise that you are not going to convince your family member to abandon their deeply held values, how will you know the discussion is done?  While the anemic acknowledgement of ‘agree to disagree’ feels unfulfilling, so does arguing until someone collapses. 

 

Þ    Focus on Solutions:  Rather than blaming, work to figure out a way that all parties can walk away satisfied.  Remember, your family bond is going to last longer than this one political issue.  Moreover, the people who you are arguing on behalf of or in opposition to do not know you exist.  So why not work together on a path forward.


 

7.              Compromise is Healthy

Þ    Create a safe space:  While the phrase ‘safe space’ has been politically co-opted, there is still value in its meaning.  Create designated apolitical zones.  Maybe the dining room, bedroom spaces, and children’s birthday parties?  You can define for mutual success.


Þ    Acknowledging Personal Space:  You might have a killer zinger on-deck, or your favorite podcast just gave you a killer talking point to argue.  You go to deliver this message and you discover your family member has friends over, or they are on a zoom call for work or school.  Now is not the time!  Positive engagement is endlessly valuable in effective communication.

 

 

8.              Be the change you wish to see in your family

Þ    As the adult, model behaviors you wish to see in your children:  ‘Do what I say, not what I do’ has a 0% success rate.  To receive respect, you must demonstrate respect.  This includes

not using personal attacks, or making false equivalency arguments.


Þ    As the advocating youth, you can still be the teacher in the room:  If your elder is behaving poorly, you have the right to model healthy boundaries.  If you are arguing politely and respectfully, you can vocalize that you are declining to argue while they are demonstrating ineffective communication style.

 

 

9.              Demonstrate Empathy

Þ    Walk a mile in the other person’s shoes:  Is your loved one arguing stronger on a topic that you don’t care as much about, other than because you want to win the argument?  Maybe do a little internal calculation as to why they are so strongly opinionated on this topic.  If you are still not sure, maybe you could ask why this issue is so important to them.

o   If your loved one does ask for clarification: Rather than getting angrier, accept this as a teachable moment.  Explain in positive terms why this issue is so important to you.  They are reaching across; you can reach back.  This is how bridges are built!


Þ    If you feel you are wrong, admit it!  Argument is not a zero-sum game.  If your family member brings up a point you have not considered, maybe you could advance dialogue by saying something to the effect of, ‘gee, I hadn’t considered that.  Could you tell me more?

 

 

 

Navigating political discussions within a family can be harrowing.  It is helpful to remember that disagreement does not equal disrespect.  Our children are developing their own values as they grow up with experiences we never encountered.  Focus on mutual communication rather than being victorious.  A willingness to understand each other will help a family grow in empathy and understanding. 


Remember, it is possible to maintain healthy relationships when mutual communication  is more important than being seen as being right.  


Using the above strategies can help create a supportive environment where everyone feels heard and valued.  And if you still need help, please consider bringing in a family counselor to discuss increasing effective family communication.

3 views0 comments

Comments


bottom of page