Handling Political Disagreements in the Family

I recently spoke with Kelly Ripa and Ryan Seacrest about how to navigate the political tensions that have filled our families and our lives. If there’s one thing that this painful and dragged-out election has taught us it’s that we can’t simply dismiss “them” (however you define that) as stupid, crazy, or evil. There are too many of “them” to discount, and sometimes “they” are people we know and love.

How can we avoid political conversations with loved ones?

Many people will choose to avoid conversations about politics with family and friends who have different viewpoints. If tensions are high and the conversation is likely to get heated or ugly, that may be a good option.

It makes sense, especially if you don’t see each other often, to focus on the things that bring you together, such as your shared interests, memories, experiences, or the people you care about. Maybe play a game or go for a walk. Reminisce about fun things you’ve done together or ask older relatives questions about when they were growing up. You can also chat about sports, hobbies, work, or cute things the kids did if you want to stay in safer territory than politics.

If someone brings up politics and you really don’t want to go there, just give a noncommittal “Hmmm” or comment, “You feel strongly about that” then change the subject. In some cases, you may want to say directly, “Let’s just enjoy each other’s company instead of talking about politics.”

Is it possible to have a peaceful conversation about politics when we don’t agree?

Although it’s tempting just to steer clear of political topics with loved ones who have different views, you may want to have these conversations. If we’re careful and kind, this is not only possible, it can also be useful.

Most of us hang out with people who think like us and get our news from sources that align with our opinions, so talking to someone outside our usual bubble can be eye-opening. If people who like or love each other can’t discuss their differences, what hope is there for our country? Being able to talk about political differences in a respectful way also sets a good example for our kids.

How can we keep political conversations from turning into big arguments?

We’re most likely to have a productive conversation across political lines if it’s one on one. Without an audience or “teams,” there’s less at stake, and it’s easier to keep things civil. Here are some more tips:

  • Keep it friendly. Skip the insults or sarcasm. Make sure your body language is open and relaxed. Lean back rather than forward. Hold your arms apart, rather than crossed. And definitely no pointing.
  • Be curious. Ask questions to try to understand how and why the other person came to those beliefs. Don’t just dismiss them as stupid or evil. Roughly half the country believes as they do. It’s useful to try to understand why.
  • Acknowledge when you can. You might say, “That’s a good point” or “I agree that’s an important issue.” If you treat the other person with respect, you’re more likely to get respect.
  • Speak to the heart, not the head. Unfortunately, facts can and will be disputed, but a personal experience or a story about someone you know, or even someone you’ve read about, is more compelling and more likely to get a caring response.
  • Be humble. Aim for understanding, not victory. Talk about what you’ve learned and also what you don’t know. Our country is facing so many difficult and painful issues right now. There are no simple answers, and it’s going to take all of us working together to make progress.
© Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD.