It’s the most dreadful time of the year! Not really, but actually it is for too many. “If you think you’re enlightened, go spend a week with your family.” – Ram Dass
I never thought I’d find myself between a right-wing preacher and Tucker Carlson talking about religion and politics. On national TV. Live. If there’s ever a time when choosing the right words matter, this is it!
I’m going to share with you the three most useful tips I’ve found being caught in the crossfire when I’m on the news, at a political event, or navigating my kids opinions (which feels more precarious sometimes than all of previous two!) I’ve found these tips work as well at the holiday dinner table or office party as they do in the toughest battles on TV.
39% of Millenials dread political discussions with certain family members or in-laws.
Communication is a skill, regardless of how much education, experience, and evolution we’ve experienced. How we communicate is the key to whether or not there’s conflict or connection.
Early on, we begin to form words to communicate our needs, desires, ideas, to learn, and connect. Although words are thought to be our primary form of communication, we actually communicate more through our physiology and tonality.
Research shows that our physiology does most of our “talking” at 55%, our tonality at 38% – our words are a mere 7% of how we say what we say. Think of an email or DM written in ALL CAP LETTERS. Why is that person yelling at me? That’s tonality. The physiology of someone shaking their finger in your face, is unmistakable.
We consider ourselves to be the more evolved species for using language, but how often do we misuse it to our detriment? One offensive word seems to do a lot more damage than a dirty look. On the flip side, imagine only responding to “I love you” from a spouse or a loved one with only a warm smile, no words. How would that go over?
With our technological advances, we have more methods for expression at our digital fingertips than ever before. We have more tools, and yet less tolerance. We have more freedom for expression, and that means more pushback. It’s time to tune in and stay in touch with the reason we attempt to communicate in the first place – to connect. How do we keep this in mind as we reach out, whether to agree or disagree?
As one who sits himself in the center of controversy on a daily basis, I’ve not always been able to keep my cool in heated situations.
I’m the California liberal who goes on Fox News every week to discuss and debate with “the other side.” I was a daily talk radio host for years, taking calls from listeners, many who despised my political positions. It was my plan to handle callers with dignity, but that didn’t always happen. Some of them got under my skin. And I let it show.
Some of them knew exactly which buttons to press, and some were rather artful at weaving in everything from racism, homophobia, xenophobia, and the old classic – questioning Obama’s citizenship. In my desire to not let it go unchallenged, I would lose my cool.
Even though we disagreed, we had the same goal – to connect.
I’ve found myself in the ring with worthy and unworthy opponents more times than I can count. It’s a blur.
So how can we sit calmly during holiday celebrations with that uncle who proudly wears his MAGA hat, looking to provoke?
The good news is that it’s not necessary to be a linguist or a professor of English to be a good communicator. What do you need? You need good intentions and a few tools.
I’ve discovered that these following three steps get me into the mindset for more harmonious communication whether it’s a television appearance, a family discussion with my wife and kids, or a serious discussion with my boss.
First, detach from your beliefs
Remind yourself there’s a you beneath your likes and dislikes, your job, your friends. There’s more to you than that. There’s more to all of us than that.
You may be a Giants fan, a vegan, a cross-fitter, an atheist, a Lord of the Rings fanatic, or a Democrat. Identifying with a group is not who you are. Remember, there is a time to defend your position, but allow yourself to briefly pause the need to defend your identity.
This isn’t easy to do. Our world rewards us for labeling, checking boxes, picking a team. We crave that feeling of being part of the tribe. That’s our nervous system reminding us that we need acceptance or else our very survival is threatened. When we lived on the savannah or in caves, our clan was our protection. To be cast out was to die. The parasympathetic nervous system, the lizard brain, still holds that to be true. This is why we often feel anxiety asking the boss for a raise, giving a speech, or putting ourselves out there on social media. It’s that lizard brain protecting us from alienation. We are designed to want to belong.
We’re all a part of this human experience together. Recognize we all feel pain, we all want things, we all love. Hold that vibration and start there.
Second, listen and get curious
Standard human anatomy includes two ears and one mouth. That means we should listen twice as much as we talk. Often the reverse is true.
Social media has empowered us to share our opinions with everyone who follows, regardless of whether we know what we’re talking about or not. This has primed us to spew out anything and everything for the dopamine reward of “likes”, training us away from our ability to listen IRL.
When it comes to conversation in person, listen to the words and pay attention to how they are said. We don’t know other people’s thoughts, feelings, or past trauma. Philo reminds us to be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.
That’s not to say there’s no room for lively debate. The idea is to challenge the thought, not the person.
Find a way to want to listen. Want to listen because people desire to be heard and know that someone cares enough to hear them.
Third, respond instead of react
Give your uncle some acknowledgment and buy yourself a moment to think, with “I hear you” or “I see what you mean” or “that gives me something to think about.”
Now that you’ve taken the time to really listen, pause and breathe. Take a beat to process to consider what was just said. This buys you a moment to cool down, not pour fuel onto the fire, and turn it into a fight.
Think to yourself, what did they mean? Do you fully understand what was said to you? If not, ask questions.
The point being, get a handle on what they just said.
One tool I use to keep my cool when attacked, like when called names, is to remove myself, to pretend as if I am a third party watching from afar. Tell yourself it isn’t actually happening, you aren’t the target of the attack.
It always helps to summarize what you’ve heard and repeat it back, it shows that you were listening. Start with something like, “If I understood you correctly your concern is…” Look at the other person when you speak. At the end of your statement ask, “is that right?” If not, ask for further clarification. This gains you time to clarify in your own mind what you want to say in response instead of in reaction.
Once they’ve generally approved of your understanding (because it doesn’t have to be perfect), they are far more open to hearing what you have to say on whatever the topic. People who feel heard and understood are far more satisfied and thus more open to listening to you.
If you really want to rumble with that uncle at holiday festivities, care enough about him to check your ego, ask him to tell you what’s on his mind, listen, and consider what he has to say. I know how hard it can be to be the bigger person and listen first, especially when you think the other person is just plain WRONG!
The Dalai Lama said, “When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know; But when you listen, you may learn something new.”
Your uncle might listen to you too, and connection we all
crave over carved Tofurkey can be found for a more harmonious holiday season.
 Consumer Reports National Research Center’s 2016 winter holiday survey.
 Albert Mehrabian, Professor Emeritus of Psychology, UCLA