Few conversation topics are as volatile for a family gathering as politics. Polarization is increasing and emotion levels can run high when discussing any number of political issues. Still, there are benefits to discussing our political ideas and learning from each other. You may want to talk through a specific issue with someone close to you. Before broaching a political topic with a family member, ask yourself a few key questions to make sure you are prepared.
What’s Your Goal?
Before entering into a political conversation with a family member, ask yourself what the goal is for your conversation. Are you hoping to persuade them to your side? Do you want them to understand you better? Are you interested in learning from their experience? You may have better success approaching the conversation as a time to share and learn, rather than as a time to persuade or correct. Trying to educate may be an appropriate approach in some instances, but only if that is welcomed by the other person.
If possible, address your goals with the family member in advance of the discussion. Ask them what their goals for the conversation are. Finding a common goal is ideal, but just understanding where each person is coming from can help to keep your conversation steered in a more productive direction.
Have You Set Appropriate Boundaries?
Healthy boundaries protect family relationships. Political conversations lend themselves to heightened emotions and conflict, so boundaries are key. If you have not set conversational boundaries with your family member before, or you are not sure that you’re both on the same page, set explicit boundaries on the conversation before engaging. There are several conversation aspects you may want to set boundaries around:
- Language: Language should stay respectful. Decide together what types of disrespectful language, such as name-calling or yelling, are off the table for this conversation.
- Topics: Perhaps you want to discuss one particular political topic, but are not comfortable encroaching into other volatile topics. Specify this in advance.
- Time: If you are concerned about both parties being able to fully share their views, decide how you will allot time to each person. Perhaps you want to take turns sharing your thoughts, or maybe you just need a reminder to listen without interrupting.
Can You Communicate Effectively?
The right communication strategies can help you to avoid enflamed emotions and hurtful misunderstandings. Both of you will get more out of the conversation if you can both articulate your thoughts and listen well too. Make sure that you have some effective communication techniques at your disposal when you go into the conversation:
- Active Listening: Give your conversational partner your full attention. Maintain appropriate eye contact, show interest, and reflect back to the parts of what you are hearing. Doing these things will help them to feel heard and understood.
- Clarifying Questions: When giving rebuttals, do not assume that you fully understand their point of view. Ask questions to clarify what you are hearing from them. Encourage them to explain why they feel the way they do. You can politely interrupt if needed in order to ask a clarifying question.
- “I” Statements: Avoid making accusations directed at the other person. This is a surefire way to create feelings of defensiveness, which can easily escalate the conversation. Focus on “I” statements instead. Explain how you are feeling or what your understanding is of the issue at hand.
- Best Medium: Having a conversation about a volatile topic over social media or texting can be difficult. If possible, have the conversation face-to-face, whether in person or via a video chatting format. Being able to hear the tone of voice and to see facial and bodily expressions may help to avoid a lot of misunderstandings that arise when trying to convey complex thoughts through text alone.
Have You Practiced?
The best way to get better at having civil dialogue and navigating multiple viewpoints is to practice. Habituate yourself to being exposed to ideas and opinions that are different from your own. Find communities and groups that are good at discussing political ideas without being polarizing. A great example is No Labels, which is a movement focused on nonpartisan collaboration and problem-solving. Get used to exchanging ideas without getting stuck on polarizing language and with a common goal of understanding both sides, regardless of where your own opinions stand. With time, it will become easier to engage in these dialogues in a civil way. This will help to preserve your relationships when discussing these controversial topics with family members. Practice makes progress!
Discussing politics among family is sometimes viewed as a faux pas and for good reason: It can be difficult to discuss controversial topics while keeping your relationship with the other person intact. Nevertheless, there is a lot of understanding and problem solving to be gained by conversing about the important topics of our day with people you trust. Keeping goals, boundaries, and healthy communication in mind can lead to more productive conversations and fewer hurt feelings.