It’s that time of year! The table is beautifully set. The candles are lit. The smell of favorite dishes baking fills the air, and everything feels aglow with the warmth of the holidays.
Until someone ruins it by mentioning breaking news.
We struggle so much during the holidays with politics. We want to talk with our loved ones about the issues that are occupying so much mental real estate for us. We also want to protect them and ourselves from conversations that might get messy. So most of us try to avoid the conversation at all costs. But we need to have these conversations, and we need to keep paying attention. Politics doesn’t have to be the Grinch that stole your get-together. You can have political conversations while enjoying your turkey dinner. Our “dos and don’ts” will help you navigate conflict without holding your tongue or offending your second cousin twice-removed.
DON’T avoid all political conversation.
Love it or hate it, our political climate is ubiquitous. It’s also important. The decisions our elected officials make and the ways that we speak to and about each other deserve our attention.
Unfortunately, most of our political discussions turn ugly fast. When we’re discussing politics with people who agree with us, we denigrate the “the other side.” When we’re in the company of people with opposing views, everyone gets defensive. This status quo is unacceptable. We can’t expect better from our political leaders without expecting better from ourselves. If we can’t discuss political issues with the folks we choose to spend holidays with, how can we expect our politicians to work together to solve problems?
We can make the effort, one conversation at a time, to elevate the debate.
DO prioritize relationships over policy points.
The first step in better holiday political conversations is to tend to your relationships during the discussions. Remember why you’ve gathered in the first place. You have a shared connection with these people. Even the family members you only see once a year or the co-workers you’re forced to share space with are part of your orbit. You belong together, at least for the next two hours.
Set this intention for yourself. Announce it in your group. As soon as the first political word is uttered, you can graciously chime in to say, “Hey, I think Tasha is bringing up something important that I think we should talk about as a family. I just want to say that we will probably disagree about some things in this conversation. Let’s do that, and love each other just as much when we’re finished as we do right now.”
By saying this, you establish the expectation for a discussion that should be respectful and kind. You remind your family members that they aren’t generic Democrats or Republicans, that you aren’t a cable news pundit, and that you’re all important to the group. You also give people a pause to opt out of the discussion gracefully.
DON’T agree to disagree.
Let’s be honest. When we say, “well, we’ll have to agree to disagree,” we don’t mean, “I see your point and think that reasonable minds can differ, but I’m glad we had this conversation because I better understand my own views as a result of this engagement.” We mean, “I’m exhausted with you and done with this conversation and resentful that we spoke to each other in the first place. Pass the wine!”
You don’t have to emerge from your holiday dinner with model legislation drafted. We aren’t urging you to come to consensus or compromise. But, hear each other out. Struggle a little bit. Ask questions. Learn something about yourself and the people you’re with. When you can end a conversation knowing exactly what your group agrees on and exactly where there are points of departure and why, you’ve had a worthy discussion.
DO ask questions to identify shared values.
Political discussions turn hot quickly because we almost always lead with our most contentious points. We forget (or can’t see) how much we have in common. It helps to start with the basics by understanding where people are coming from, classifying the discussion as a topic that everyone can contribute to, and beginning with the fundamentals of that topic.
We are often living in different information worlds, and it’s important to identify that. Don’t assume where people are getting their information, and be willing to ask what information they believe. Then, it’s helpful to transition to a general topic that everyone can contribute to. For example, rather than talking about the Affordable Care Act, talk about what our values are around health care. When you are able to frame a question that everyone can answer, it can lead to surprisingly interesting conversations.
Don’t be afraid to raise topics that might sound high-minded or cheesy. Liberty, justice, faith, hope, and love are the building blocks of our relationships and country. You can bring people back to these basics in kind ways that prompt critical thinking. You can also remind people of your family’s values in an effort to understand how people reconcile their political positions and deeply-held beliefs.
DON’T go along to get along.
When we encourage you to move the conversation forward through questions, we don’t mean that you should check your opinions at the door. Some of us are wired for peacemaking, and that’s wonderful. But peacemaking shouldn’t come at the expense of saying our piece. Your opinion matters. Your voice is needed. Other people are watching and listening to you. So, don’t be afraid to speak in opposition to your family members.
You don’t have to pick a fight to disagree. You can simply say, “I care about you. I also don’t see the truth in what you just said.” You can say, “I love you. I strongly disagree with you about this, and I’m sad that we’re in such different places about something that I believe is so important.” And when you’re out of ordinary policy disagreements and into truly unacceptable territory, say so: “I don’t know what your intentions are, but what you just said is hurtful to me and I can imagine to many people in this room. If you say that again, I’m going to have to ask you to leave this party.”
DO turn down the heat.
You can’t control everyone at your family gathering. You can model the behavior you’d like to see from others. You can be generous with yourself and other people. You’re allowed to feel whatever you feel. You can be tired. You can take a break.
Please do not try to win the holiday party discussion. Don’t purposefully embarrass other people. You can vigorously disagree in a loving way. We encourage you to have grace-filled conversations, conversations in which we all participate fully, equally, and with the sense that we belong together. You can turn down the heat by being the person in the room who maintains a sense that the conversation is important, and it is also not the entirety of your gathering or your group.
When it’s time to exit the discussion, thank people. Even if the conversation became almost unbearably difficult, thank everyone for being together. You can say, “I know this has been hard. Thank you for taking it seriously. Thank you for trusting me and each other. We should do this again sometime. And right now, we should turn on the parade.”
This holiday season, don’t allow politics to drag your celebrations down. Do infuse your celebrations with healthy civic engagement, and then get back to merriment.