This holiday season, given the highly charged and volatile political landscape, many families intend to opt out of, or even forbid, political discussions at the dinner table. It can be difficult to have a constructive conversation or debate with members of your family when the context for such discussions has become so polarized and divisive. It becomes easy to fall into the conservative, liberal or progressive arguments, using soundbites narrowly proscribed by political parties and the media, leading to angry standoffs with the ones you love the most.
In fact, during the most recent presidential election, it was estimated that 41% of married couples voted for opposing candidates, leading to many heated arguments and in some cases, serious marital discord. In the same study, researchers discovered that 40% of Americans feel tension with their friends and families due to the election. Seven percent reported actually ending a friendship due to different political views exacerbated by the heated political climate.
Given the real dangers of marital and family discord, it may seem like a good idea to take politics off the table at family dinners and holiday gatherings. At our family’s Thanksgiving meal last year, just weeks after the election, one of my siblings began to express their political views and another of my siblings, whose home we were gathered at, immediately shifted the conversation with, “We’re not going there.”
We Need to “Go There”
Taking political conversations off the table may prevent heated arguments from souring a family gathering, but there is also a real loss involved if we cannot have conversation about things that really matter—especially with our own family. Politics, whether we like it or not, is the domain that addresses our most important financial, social, environmental and human issues. Finding a way to listen to and take a look at others' viewpoints is one of the best ways to learn and broaden our own understanding about important issues that impact all of our lives. While listening to or engaging in dialog with others about political issues may not change our own positions, it may shift our attitude toward others in positive ways when we are willing to, at least momentarily, see the world through their eyes.
Political dialogue allows us to have real conversations with one another beyond just talking about the weather, sports, the latest gossip or other relatively “safe” topics. By engaging in difficult conversations, we learn how to respectfully listen and talk to one another. Without engaging in these deeper and more meaningful conversations, we don’t really develop our perspectives. The increasingly polarizing and divisive social trend is to just shut out everything we don't want to hear, listening only to the media sources we like or agree with and rarely learning, much less appreciating, anything about other people’s views.
It is becoming increasingly easy to fall into the trap of believing everything that comes from the media outlet most aligned with our own views. While some outlets do a better job of reporting the news accurately and fairly than others, no media source is without its biases. Unfortunately, some media sources do appear to be more focused on building a commercially profitable audience around a particularly narrow and politically biased interpretation of events. Nonetheless, it's still possible to learn something from every side of the coin. Staying well-informed and developing reasoned, intelligent positions anywhere within the spectrum of political views, requires exposing ourselves to a broad spectrum of views and different sources of information.
Starting Good Conversations
If you feel it is simply too risky to engage in political dialogue with family members, especially at holiday gatherings; you could at least consider finding the courage to have a conversation about the need to engage in meaningful communication with each other and our fears around that. In The Lost Art of Good Conversation, Buddhist meditation teacher, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, provides ideas and practices for relearning the art of conversation, addressing the dangers facing humanity in this age of digital devices and divisive politics if we give up on having genuine conversations with each other.
If you do decide to take the leap and reengage these important topics of conversation with those you love, there are a number of ways to assure these discussions are productive. Start by really listening to what the other person is saying without interrupting with your own opinions and try listening to where they are coming from without nitpicking their word choice. Focusing on word choice or correcting statements that you think are inaccurate is likely going to derail the conversation entirely. Most importantly, try not to take the conversation too personally. Most people have a personal reason for the values they believe in, and the life experiences behind that personal reason might be completely different from your own.
One of the suggestions from The Lost Art of Good Conversation is to reflect on something you respect about the other person before engaging the conversation. Imagine if, before we enter into a conversation with a spouse or other family member, we first reflected on how deeply we care about them, how much we love and respect them. From that perspective, we could find a way to be genuinely curious about their views and ideas and how they came to them. We don’t have to agree with someone or give up our own positions, even when they are very different, in order to respectfully listen to someone and enjoy learning more about them.
It can also be helpful to put some simple rules or guidelines in place before you begin a potentially challenging conversation. For example, you could agree to focus on good listening, to avoid interrupting and to keeping statements somewhat brief. You could also establish some kind of timeout signal anyone can use, when they feel the conversation is becoming too heated or when listening and respectful communication is breaking down. Just make sure whatever conversation you are having is respectful and doesn't wind up hurting your relationships with those you love most.
Why are these conversations essential to have? Because they show that you have the desire and the care to learn about someone else's viewpoints. They help you to develop genuine appreciation and respect for those around you. Also, they help you to understand that everyone comes to their views out of their life experiences, so you can respect their ideas and reasoning, even if you clearly disagree. Finally, having difficult conversations is a great way to build confidence in yourself and your relationships.
So, while you are sitting around your holiday dinner tables this year, don't be afraid to discuss politics and the relevant issues in your community or our global society that impact all of us and the quality of life for ourselves, others and future generations. You just might be surprised by the insights and connections you will gain through genuine communication with others, especially your loved ones.
Fleet Maull PhD is an author, organizational and corrections consultant, trainer and executive coach who facilitates deep transformation for individuals and organizations through mindfulness-based leadership training and Radical Responsibility consulting and coaching programs. Learn more at fleetmaull.com and mindfulcorrections.org.