Happy holidays and welcome to Thunderdome.
Two things that are often fraught, awkward, difficult, and maddening:
a) Talking about politics
b) Holiday family time
This year it’s tough to know where one ends and the other begins.
That’s why BuzzFeed Health reached out to clinical psychologist Andrea Bonior, PhD, author of Psychology: Essential Thinkers, Classic Theories, and How They Inform Your World; Colorado-based clinical psychologist Stephanie Smith; and NYC-based psychotherapist and marriage counselor Jean Fitzpatrick, LP, to get their advice on how to deal with intense family time coming right on the heels of a super-contentious election.
1. Know your role going in.
Way before you walk through the door, take some time to think about what you want your role to be in whatever discussions and arguments you’re anticipating, Bonior tells BuzzFeed Health.
If you tend to be your family’s peacekeeper and mediator in general, know that you might be expected to fulfill those duties when the political talk starts. Mediating might be a great way to avoid having to take sides and do battle, or it could be a totally draining way to spend your holiday. If you are someone who tends to throw themselves into debates and actually get really excited about them, think about whether that’s likely to hold true at this particular time.
There’s no right or wrong answer about choosing a role. The trick, says Bonior, is to think in advance about what’s going to work for you so that you can make a game plan for yourself.
2. Consider setting some ground rules ahead of time in a group email/text/call.
One way to get everyone on the same page before the day of is to attempt some ground rules for talking politics, says Bonior. You can suggest allowing a specific window of time for election-related discussion — say, no longer than 30 or 45 minutes, or maybe only during the first part of the night when people are having their first drink and picking at appetizers. Or perhaps once the third bottle of wine comes out, the election talk comes to an end.
You can also set other ground rules: Perhaps someone who’s always impartial can mediate, everyone can agree to not raise their voice, etc.
3. Don’t use the holiday get-together as an opportunity to unload all your pent-up anger and frustration about the election.
Feeling anger and anxiety isn’t bad, but understand that if those emotions are overwhelming you, it may be best to avoid having political conversations until you’ve processed some of those feelings.
So although it may seem like the perfect time to school your relatives all in one go, it’s likely not going to be beneficial if it’s coming from a place of bottled-up anger and frustration.
“If you’re already feeling anxiety and rage before even starting the conversation, then it’s not going to end well and you should consider going for a walk, working out, or anything that will help you relax a bit,” Fitzpatrick says.
4. Let go of the expectation that you’ll get everyone to agree with you.
Most people avoid controversial topics because they’re afraid there will be disagreement, which is uncomfortable. But Fitzpatrick wants people to understand that a “successful conversation” isn’t defined by whether or not you convince someone to agree with your point of view.
“If you want to have a productive conversation, you have to let go of the desire to persuade the other person,” she says. “You don’t have to like their opinion, but you do have to understand that you’re probably not going to change it. So instead, try to focus on helping them understand why you feel the way you do.”
If you recognize that you can’t let go of the need to persuade people’s beliefs, then it may be beneficial to not have the conversation, since it will only leave you extremely frustrated and disappointed.
5. Make the conversation about your experiences and feelings, rather than trying to force facts and prove your point.
Instead of focusing on your own opinions or the facts and stats you have at your disposal, Fitzpatrick suggests making the conversation about sharing your experiences and the things that have led you to feel the way that you do.
As you try to connect with people who have different beliefs or values, let them know that you’re not necessarily expecting them to agree with you. Rather you just want them to hear you out and understand where you’re coming from and why you feel so personally connected to this year’s election results.
“Our country is so divided right now,” Fitzpatrick says. “One of the best things that we can do is share our experiences so we can better understand each other.”
6. And be thoughtful about how you talk; avoid shaming and labeling.
Making an effort to be respectful and even kind isn’t just a strategy for making things less antagonistic — it also makes whoever you’re talking to more amenable to your arguments, Bonior says. “Avoid shaming, because we know that when people feel shamed they absolutely will not listen to what you have to say,” she says.
Bonior says the same goes for labeling — as much as you might think a particular ~descriptor~ applies to someone based on how they voted, you might alienate them even more by, well, name-calling. And ditto using generalizing statements like “You always think this way” or “This is so typical of you.” Instead, Bonior says to stick to statements that describe your feelings and observations, as opposed to your opinions about their opinions.
7. And make an effort to really listen.
We can all agree that the most fun part of arguing is using the time the other person is talking to formulate your searing rebuttal. But if you went into this thing hoping that you might get people who disagree with you to hear what you’re saying, you’re going to need to really try to listen to them, too, says Smith.
The first step here is to genuinely be interested in what they’re saying; assume that understanding their position more deeply is worthwhile and might help them understand you in return. “Let them know you’re paying attention and care about what they’re saying,” says Smith.
You can say things like, “I don’t understand where you’re coming from. Can you explain it to me?” And after you’ve heard their side — again, you need to actually listen for this to work — you can say, “I just learned X, Y, and Z from what you said, and I get what you’re saying. Would you be willing to listen to me share my side, too?”
There are some more tips for being a pro listener here.
8. Attempt to find some common ground.
A lot people feel that this election was uncommonly personal, like their own livelihoods and interests and lives were at stake no matter which side they were on, says Bonior. This can make things pretty contentious, but it’s also an opportunity to connect with people who you disagree with in an effort to make the conversation go more smoothly. You can say things like:
• “I think we’re so passionate about this because we both care so much.”
• “We’re both coming from a place of upset here.”
• “Ultimately I think that we both want what we think is best.”
It’s not that you need to excuse anyone’s beliefs or actions or concede their point — it’s more about finding some broad ways to connect in an effort to facilitate conversation that could actually impact the way people think and feel.
9. Have a game plan for when you feel personally attacked.
If things start going south, and someone says something that royally pisses you off, try not to lash out, because taking jabs at them will only escalate the argument, Fitzpatrick says.
Instead, she advises that you be strategic in the way that you respond to them by explaining how you’re interpreting the situation and how it makes you feel. For example, you could say, “It sounds like you’re attacking my point of view and that’s making me really upset.”
But if someone says something that really cuts you deep, she recommends stopping the conversation and saying something along the lines of “Hey, listen, why don’t we go set the table/check on the turkey/play with the puppy.” Try to remove yourself from the situation, because the conversation is only going to go downhill from there, and you can try taking it up at a later time once you’ve calmed down and thought through your emotions.
10. Let your body be your stress gauge.
One downside of getting so enraged that you raise your voice or slam a dish (you know, for emphasis) is that it can totally escalate the situation. Goodbye, semi-harmonious agree-to-disagreement. Plus, it pretty much guarantees that you will be drained and emotionally exhausted by the end of the night.
To get through a contentious evening without creating chaos or taking on a ton of emotional bruising and battering, keep an eye on your body’s response to what’s happening. If you feel your face getting hot or your palms sweating, your chest tightening, or your heart racing, or hear your voice getting louder, take a deep breath to slow yourself down. “Centering yourself will prevent things from escalating,” says Bonior. It might also be a good time to take that walk or text a friend.
11. Just in case everything goes sideways, make sure you have your support systems in place.
Unfortunately, the likelihood of you and your family member with opposing political views seeing eye to eye after talking isn’t astronomical. And in some cases the conversation can leave you feeling hurt, confused, and angry.
That’s why Fitzpatrick says it’s important to validate your own experiences or have a support network you can reach out to that can relate to how you feel and validate your experiences for you. That support network could be a friend who’s going through a similar situation at home, it could be a co-worker who has the same political views as you, or it could be your cousin who’s sitting next to you at the table and agreeing with everything you say. Have someone on standby either to text throughout the night or to debrief with first thing Friday morning.
12. Don’t engage with anyone who’s arguing drunkenly.
If you find yourself arguing with someone who’s pretty darn wasted or you’re noticing someone getting increasingly cantankerous as they drink, it’s time to end the conversation; Smith says that it’s fruitless to try to engage with someone who’s not sober.
If you know in advance someone(s) in particular is likely to get drunk and want to argue belligerently, have a plan in place for how you’re going to end the conversation, change the topic, or shift the group to a new activity (“Let’s watch a movie or play a board game or take a walk!”).
13. Figure out what you want your relationships to be with those people you disagree with.
It’s important to remember that people aren’t the sum of their political opinions. But it’s up to you to decide what kind of relationship you want to have with this person going forward, Fitzpatrick says.
If we’re talking about a loved one who you disagree with, you may have to swallow your emotions, understand that you’re not going to change one other’s opinions, and figure out the best way to deal with a controversial topic like politics. That could mean making it an untouchable topic, putting limits on how far the conversation can go, or making designated times to have a civil exchange about it.
However, if this person is someone you barely know or hardly have a relationship with (like your aunt’s weird friend), or if it’s someone you had a relationship with but your interactions with them are increasingly damaging your mental health, it may be equally worth it to save your breath and not engage today — particularly if you know that you’ll never see them again or if you’re reconsidering your relationship with them anyway.
14. Remember this isn’t your last/only opportunity to get people to see where you’re coming from.
When you think about it, the holidays are a notoriously bad time to have high-stakes political conversations. But this year the holidays start barely two and a half weeks after the election.
“The tensions of the election, whether or not your candidate won, are so fresh and so raw. We’ve been going through a yearlong battle and we’re all fatigued,” says Smith. This means a lot of us are going into this holiday weary and probably with a pretty empty tank, which means your holiday conversations might feel draining, unproductive, or both.
But it’s good to keep in mind that even if election talk over the holidays is a total shitshow, there will be other opportunities to have these conversations under better circumstances. You can find a time to talk to family members one-on-one, maybe on neutral ground like in a coffeeshop or park, or just over the phone. You can conduct the whole conversation when everyone is a bit calmer.
15. And don’t forget about the family you have outside of the people you eat with at the holidays.
As hard as it can be to not see eye to eye with your relatives and loved ones, keep in mind there are so many other people in your life who love and understand you, and that you can lean on them anytime you need comfort and support.
“We have many families,” Fitzpatrick says. “It’s important to get support from people who can validate your feelings and experiences. It’ll help you remember you’re definitely not alone.”
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