It’s everyone’s favorite time of year– getting to have political discussions with family around the dinner table! I mean, Thanksgiving.
For some, Thanksgiving is an excuse to get together with loved ones, share a meal and give thanks for what we have. For others, it has become associated with having awkward, and difficult, political conversations with family, while simultaneously trying to avoid that “crazy uncle” everyone seems to have.
It’s no secret that politics has become very divisive. But, you may be surprised to learn that 85% of Americans said that political differences did not hurt their relationships with family members. This includes 71% of Gen Z between 18-24; 70% of Millennials; 86% of Gen X and Boomers, and 89% of the Silent Generation. Unfortunately, our perceptions of what having political discussions is like can be largely swayed by what we see online or in the media, and that may hinder our willingness to have conversations this holiday season.
While you’re not obligated to hop into a political discussion this week, don’t be afraid if the topic does come up! Here are some tips if you do find politics on the menu:
#1: Establish common definitions and discussion guidelines
At the root of many political differences lies the definitions we use. If participants enter a conversation with different understandings of words or phrases, the discussion can become much more difficult. Establishing common definitions for terminology and agreeing on a set of shared facts will make political conversations go much smoother.
Make sure to also establish discussion guidelines! This can be as simple as agreeing to respect each other and not interrupt when someone is talking, and can go as far as setting a timer for how long each participant gets to speak.
Hint: You can use AllSides Red Blue Translator™ to get a basic understanding of what different words might mean to different people.
#2: Listen to understand, not to respond
At the end of day, we all just want to be heard. Remember this when you are discussing politics this holiday season. Conversations become less effective when participants are planning their response ahead of time instead of listening to what’s being said.
The point is to allow each other space to be heard, and to see if you can understand a different perspective. If understanding is not an option, the other person may still be grateful that they were able to share their thoughts with you.
Try this: Repeating back to your discussion partner what you heard them say in your own words, to make sure you were listening and interpreting what they were saying correctly.
#3: Ask questions about experiences
Instead of diving right into a debate, try asking about experiences. Many times, our views come from past experiences, including where and how we were raised, who we are surrounded by, and also the values we hold. It’s easier to discuss difficult topics when we focus more on the individual and learn what shaped their views, and it also helps us humanize each other a little more. You may find that you’re able to empathize with each other, even if you don’t agree on the opinion.
Try this: Ask “What is an experience that shaped this view?” or “What happened that caused you to think this?”
#4: Address the perspective, not the person
It’s easy to assume that everyone who may disagree with us is against us. But, just because we may not like what’s being shared, doesn’t mean the person sharing the thought is necessarily a bad person. Instead of directly addressing the speaker, try addressing the perspective they are sharing. You may think the idea is not very well thought out, but that doesn’t mean your counterpart is uneducated.
Addressing the perspective also makes it easier to avoid personal attacks and can keep the conversation focused more on ideas and policies rather than informing the character of participants.
Try this: Say “I’m not sure I agree with that point. Is there a different way you can explain this idea?”
#5: Don’t try to change minds
The most important thing to remember in political discussions is that the point isn’t to try and change minds. Many of us go into these conversations with an intention to have the other person agree with us, but the reality is we often won’t be able to change the other person’s mind. By removing this expectation and allowing discussions to unfold authentically, we can develop better conversation styles and even build trust between each other.
Hint: The best way to change minds is by listening to each other and having patience.
(BONUS!) #6: Thank each other for the conversation
Too often, we view people with differing views as bad or as “the enemy”. Less often do we actually get the chance to have a conversation with them. Try thanking each other for taking the time to discuss this holiday season and for being willing to share views.
Political discussions can be intimidating. They can also be challenging. That doesn’t mean we should shy away from them. That also doesn’t mean we have to engage in them. Wherever you find yourself this holiday season, these tips can help navigate conversations with loved ones and may even lead to a better understanding of each other, political or otherwise.
BridgeUSA is the largest and fastest multi-partisan student movement fighting polarization in colleges and high schools across the nation. Through their college and high school chapters, BridgeUSA students are standing up for a politics that rewards empathy and dialogue over division and anger. Learn more about BridgeUSA.
This piece was reviewed and edited by Clare Ashcraft, Bridging & Bias Assistant at AllSides (Center bias).