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If you’d rather drown in your great-aunt’s cranberry sauce than get into a political conversation with family, you’re not alone. A slight majority of Americans, 53 percent, find political discussions with people who don’t agree with them “stressful and frustrating,” according to a recent Pew Research Center survey. The logical conclusion: Ban politics from the holiday dinner table, right? Wrong. You can have conversations about important issues that are still considerate of those involved, says Jason Jay, a senior lecturer at MIT and author of a book on breaking through gridlock. Still, experts suggest knowing when to exit rather than engage – when conversations go off the rails or if someone’s identity is being demeaned, for example. But bridge-building is possible by discussing the beliefs and personal experiences behind a position rather than the position itself. When the conversation is around shared interests rather than positions, “there might be some middle ground,” Mr. Jay says. “There might be some new idea that neither of us could have come up with by ourselves.”
At your last holiday meal, how did your family approach political discussions? Was there a firm prohibition on politics at the dinner table? Did one person come ready for a fight, to the exhaustion of everyone else?
If you’d rather drown in your great-aunt’s cranberry sauce than get into a political conversation with family, you’re not alone. A slight majority of Americans, 53 percent, find political discussions with people who don’t agree with them “stressful and frustrating,” according to a recent Pew Research Center survey. Only two years ago, almost the same share of people, 51 percent, found these conversations “interesting and informative.”
As all signs point to an increasingly polarized political atmosphere, it seems easier to just ban politics from the holiday dinner table in hopes of keeping the peace. It’s not like climate change or blue-collar job loss will be solved at a family meal anyway, right?
Perhaps they won't, but it’s possible that avoiding politics isn’t saving your family relationships either, says Jason Jay, coauthor of a book on breaking through gridlock. If we can’t talk about the issues that are important to us with our family, those relationships are guaranteed to be shallow, he says. But if we insist on talking about issues regardless of how family members react, they’re probably not hearing us, either.
“I think that choice, framed as an either-or choice, is the essential problem,” says Dr. Jay, who is a senior lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management. “That idea that you have to choose either ‘keep the peace, but stall on the issue’ or ‘make progress on the issue, but, you know, steamroll over the people that I care about’ ... that’s a false dichotomy.”
Rather than choose one or the other, Jay emphasizes having conversations about important issues that are still considerate of the other person.
For writer Ann Leigh, conversations about politics have taken a toll. While the family members she sees often are liberal, like herself, they still make comments that are hard for her to stomach, such as asserting that former Sen. Al Franken, who was forced to resign after numerous allegations of sexual misconduct, was unfairly persecuted. She feels a responsibility to discuss issues that are important to her, but that involves a large emotional investment.
“I definitely don’t feel as excited as I used to in past years to see my family,” she says.
When to engage – or exit
It may be best to avoid conversations with someone who only wants to prove “your side” wrong, says Jenna Abetz, assistant professor of communications at South Carolina’s College of Charleston, who adds that such conversations won’t respect the participants or the issues.
“[If] the point is to prove you wrong in that way, or bait you in a way that pins you into a corner, you have to not engage with that,” she says.
Sometimes conversations will go off the rails, despite people’s best efforts. In that case, it’s important to know when to walk away. Jane Timmons-Mitchell, a professor of applied social sciences and psychiatry at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio, suggests regularly checking in with yourself during family gatherings. How do you feel mentally, emotionally, and physically?
“I think everybody should feel free to exit from the conversation if it passes where their comfort level is, as a matter of self-preservation,” says Dr. Timmons-Mitchell.
One important caveat: If a person’s identity is demeaned or considered up for debate, it may be best to avoid the gathering altogether, suggests Dr. Abetz. When political discussions shift to discussing someone’s right to exist, there is a risk of damaging mental or emotional health.
“There is such [a] thing as healthy family estrangement,” she says.
And while it’s easy to take fixed positions on political issues, that doesn’t usually foster understanding or collaboration. For example, calling the federal minimum wage of $7.25 “an embarrassment,” and questioning a business’s right to exist if it doesn't pay its employees more, is unlikely to lead to a conversation about solutions.
Instead, it can be helpful to personalize an issue, Abetz says. For example, sharing a story about a challenge that a friend working a minimum-wage job faced could help put a human face on a political issue.
Experts also suggest orienting conversations toward solutions by discussing interests rather than positions. What beliefs and experiences have caused you to take certain positions? You might believe that all Americans should be able to support themselves with 40 hours of work each week. And someone else may believe that small businesses should be able to make wage decisions with minimal government involvement because he or she believes those businesses hold value in a time when big-box stores are increasingly forcing them to close.
When the discussion is around shared interests rather than positions, “there might be some middle ground,” Jay says. “There might be some new idea that neither of us could have come up with by ourselves.”