Holiday Conversations in a Polarized World

In today’s highly polarized political climate, even time spent with family and friends can quickly turn contentious. There we are, innocently gathering around the Thanksgiving dinner table, when — BAM! — an issue comes up that threatens to ruin not just the meal but our closest relationships.

Source: Jay Grant Publications LLC

Shortly after the 2016 election, we heard from many people who were avoiding communicating with their loved ones out of fear of where the conversations might lead. It wasn’t just people ‘unfriending’ virtual acquaintances but, rather, family members or dear friends who quit speaking to one another about the topics that mattered most to them.

We understand the dilemma. Why wade into a conversation that may risk upsetting and damaging the relationship, perhaps irrevocably? But avoiding conversations with those we love eventually creates the very upset and damage we feared.

Too many people approach these difficult conversations with the following trade-off in mind: Either I stay quiet about the issue and keep the peace in my relationship/family, or I charge forward with the issue even if the relationship becomes collateral damage. Neither of these options is appealing. Worse, neither works.

Staying quiet and keeping the peace fails in at least two ways. Let’s say you decide that maintaining your relationship with [Judy, Uncle Tim, Grandma Sue, insert your loved one here] is more important than championing the issues that are important to you. You keep your mouth shut whenever the conversation turns to [race, climate change, politics, insert your issue of choice here]. How close does this really make you feel with the person? Do you really know them? Do they really know you?

Moreover, psychologists tell us that relatedness is a necessary ingredient for changing hearts and minds. The person both advocating for your cause and related to your Uncle Tim is you. If you don’t talk to them, you’ll be left criticizing their congressman or CEO from your armchair, and that won’t have any effect.

Going in hot also fails. When we charge into conversations, too often we get distracted by the temptations to be right, righteous and certain. As soon as it becomes apparent that we’re valuing being right more than our relationship with Uncle Tim, the conversation will go off the rails fast.

Profound breakthroughs occur when people abandon choosing between the relationship and their cause. Instead, they choose to explore the possibility of standing for both.

Where might the conversation go if you said something like, “Our relationship is really important to me and I want to be able to talk to you about the things I care about. In the past, I was afraid, and decided that it wasn’t possible. I’ve been hiding what matters to me from you, and I don’t want to do that any more. Going forward, I’d like to look for ways for us both to explore things that are meaningful and in a way that contributes toward, rather than diminishes, our time together. Would you help me?”

Consider this (abbreviated) story from Charlotte, an undergraduate student who tried a new approach with her grandmother, using the exercises available in our book, Breaking Through Gridlock – The Power of Conversation in a Polarized World.

“Looking back on the conversation, I am surprised by how much I was able to keep my emotions in check. Usually when I argue with my grandmother, I take her opposition to my viewpoints much more personally. I often feel that our differences prevent us from having as deep of a relationship as we otherwise might. But this conversation was different…it was a much more open discourse. Though I failed at changing her mind… I think that our ability to discuss these issues more openly and conversationally was a big step for us.

In addition, when I asked my grandmother how she would feel if I were to pursue a career fighting for environmental causes, she surprised me with her answer. She told me  that as long as the organization had integrity, she would support me in my work. In light of her extremely strong opinions, I was so glad to hear that she could look past our disagreement on the issues and still wish me well in my pursuit of environmental causes. This showed me that my grandmother loves me enough to respect my values, whether or not they align with her own, and that’s a wonderful thing to hear.”

We can all continue to pretend that “the other side” is somehow totally disconnected and we don’t know how to reach them. Meanwhile, we can collectively ignore that everyone on “the other side” has a cousin, a spouse, a best friend with different views, experiences, and beliefs. We can further ignore that for someone, we are that cousin, spouse, or best friend. We can continue to avoid the difficult work of figuring out how to talk to one another.

Or, we can stand for something different.

Will these conversations be easy? Heck no.

It will take many failures to find an effective way of communicating our message among people who think differently. Often, friends and family who love us are more likely to graciously allow us to fail and try again. When we practice sharing what matters most, we begin to create relationships where we share our whole self and where others do the same. Our humanity becomes present. Love is present.

Who do you love so much that you won’t talk to them about the issues that you care about the the most? Is that love?

Have you used the issues you care about to avoid speaking to someone you love? Is that love?

What might it look like if you stood for both the issues you care about and the relationship?

What actions will you take today toward creating a healthy relationship where you can both share conversations about what really matters?

Our posts on winning hearts and minds and how to wield the power of vulnerability provide additional guidance around having effective conversations about topics important to you.

In the meantime, pass the gravy, and be kind with the elephants in the room.

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