Donald Trump has already created enough division, I’m not going to let him divide my family too!
“The Charlottesville debacle has got to change their minds–finally!” Weeks earlier, the caller ID told me my parents were trying me again. I’d been avoiding their call for days. In the heat of the nation’s horror and Trump’s “On both sides” justifications, I still felt too raw and emotional to separate out my love for them from their conservative tunnel vision. On the last ring I dutifully, reluctantly, picked up. My mother asked kindly about my day. I responded by unleashing everything that had been bottled up: “I’m gutted about Charlottesville! How could anyone think it’s okay to legitimize neo-Nazism, let alone the President…”
Furious, I wanted concession from anyone who punched a hole in the ballot next to Trump’s name. Underneath it all, I was scared our country was losing its deepest values. I desperately wanted them to partner my anguish. Instead, pots clanged over the speaker as they whispered instructions to each other for the meal they were preparing together. They were tactfully trying to change the subject. “Dad and I are trying a new recipe…” My jaw clenched. I refused to give in to avoidance. I hung up as quickly as possible after a few more formalities. I felt a knot in my stomach, tasted bitterness on my tongue. This wasn’t the first time this scene had played out since the election.
The doorbell chimed, tugging me from my brooding. The UPS driver handed me a box saying, “Careful. It’s heavy. Must be books. Or gold bars again!” I sliced open the seam. Looking up at me was the first printed copy of my book, about connecting in a disconnected world. I carefully bent open the shiny cover, turned the crisp pages, and re-read the work I had completed a year ago.
But instead of satisfaction, a shadow of profound truth eclipsed the joy of holding my book; I felt guilt and shame at the way I spoke to my parents.
The quote “Vanity runs, love digs,” by Gustave Thibon jumped off the page. I then skimmed over the poignant paragraph: “Digging in means searching rather than knowing. Digging in means wondering more than exploring.” My eyes came to rest on the questions that create connection: What is important to them? What matters to me? What do they need? What do I?
In my work, I’ve used these questions to advise hundreds of businesses in communication. Through them, people authentically grow their understanding, value their differences, and learn to trust themselves. I’ve discussed these methods around the world and in a TEDx Talk. But since the election I hadn’t used them as a bridge with my own family.
During the call with my parents, I had let vanity make me run and forgotten altogether to dig in with love. How could I expect politicians in Washington to do better if I couldn’t with the people I love the most? I’d been reading Facebook posts, watching news stations and SNL skits, donating funds and signing petitions that reinforced my own point of view. If I was going to dig in and relate to my parents, I needed to have the courage to have a different kind of conversation. Not to convince them to change or prove I was right, but I at least needed to attempt to understand where they were coming from.
I called them the next day and asked if they’d be willing to have a different kind of conversation. They seemed a bit confused, but agreed. I began by asking my dad how his eye was doing–he’s a surgeon who just started losing his depth perception through macular degeneration. I asked my mother how she wanted to celebrate his 73rd birthday. I warmed up to the molten topic of politics by admitting our last call didn’t go as I had hoped, and told them I was sorry for the effect it had on each of us. I shared how important it was for me to understand them, even if I didn’t agree on certain issues; mostly I just wanted to feel connected to them.
Over the next hour, my parents told me about the emotional toll their journey through the last five decades had taken, living in four countries, surviving four wars, working with the US embassy; the moments my dad had to make healthcare choices as representative of a province in Ottawa, and the hardships of his former practice in in Mississippi. They spoke of navigating broken systems, broken governments, losses, taxes. My mom talked about all the lives my dad had saved during his fifty years in medicine. I heard about what had been taken from them, and what had been given to them. It was a family history most of which I knew, but I had never understood before how it had influenced their politics.
My mother was emphatic about one thing. “Like you, your dad and I are very upset about what happened in Charlottesville. We will never choose hate, Angie. What we care about right now is our family and our country healing.” My breath went deeper. We had found the connection point: the one essential thing on which we could agree. We talked about the whole mess of issues. We weren’t trying to resolve anything, just understand what was important to each of us.
We may vote differently, but with family, politics shouldn’t divide us or distance us. We need to find a way to elevate ourselves to have civil, considerate, open-minded discussions with those closest to us. We can’t try and change the other, make them wrong and ourselves right, or make them respect or like our different ways of thinking. But we can reconcile with family members, business partners, and friends. When we learn to relate to them, to discover more about them and ourselves, we can save the connection.