How To Navigate Holiday Political Discussions Without Losing Your Mind
In our politically divisive climate, some people get anxious at the thought of attending Holiday family gatherings where different political views are expressed, discussed, or aggressively asserted.
I’ve heard people express dread at the prospect of hearing viewpoints that trigger them: Something about not wanting to feel the negative feelings or trusting that they can remain civil.
One strategy people employ is to not attend or to limit the time of attendance. This strategy to protect yourself carries the cost of not having access or limited access to the connections you do enjoy in the family.
Is there another way to go about this where you can protect yourself and enjoy the family connections?
The principles of Compassionate Communication have a very viable and tangible answer to this question. It requires a bit of a mindset change but it’s powerful once you get the hang of it.
Suppose you have an uncle who blurts out to you, “If we don’t stop the flow of immigration with a wall, pretty soon I’ll be out of a job.”
If you respond with…
“You’re just spouting right-wing propaganda,” or
“A wall is not going to stem the tide of immigrants, it is a stupid waste of money,” or
“Can’t you open your heart and see how these people are struggling and just want to have a better life?
…then the conversation is going to devolve into neither listening to the other and just talking past each other with mounting frustrations on both sides.
Now suppose YOU start a conversation and blurt out, “If it wasn’t for the corrupt corporatocracy and 1% grabbing all the money, maybe I would have more opportunities to make more money!”
If your uncle responds with…
“All you commie liberals like to blame others for your problems,” or
“You know, socialist redistribution of wealth never works,” or
“What you need to do pull yourself up by your bootstraps instead crying in your craft beer.”
…then this, again, will probably devolve to the same disconnection and mounting frustrations for both.
So can the Compassionate Communication principles help this situation?
Three principles to stay connected to politically difficult relatives
The first principle is to shift your mindset from the right/wrong framework to a connection framework. Admittedly, this is a monumental task because we naturally like to think of our perspectives as RIGHT.
Instead of focusing on being right, we focus on the intention to stay connected on a heart-to-heart level. Yes, even with politics!
One way to move away from the right/wrong paradigm is to tune into and hear the wants, needs or values that lie behind the words being expressed by the other and the feelings(s) associated with them.
For example, when your uncle says, “If we don’t stop the flow of immigration with a wall, pretty soon I’ll be out of a job!”
What does he want and what might he be feeling?
I would guess feeling anxious or fearful because he wants to have the assurance that he can have financial security and be able to provide for his family. So we connect on that level as a starting point.
Let’s look at the other viewpoint: “If it wasn’t for the corrupt corporatocracy and 1% grabbing all the money, maybe I would have more opportunities to make more money.”
I would guess this person is feeling anxious about not having opportunities and they too want some assurance of their financial security and providing for their family.
Interesting how both these viewpoints represent the same want or need, isn’t it?
This highlights the second important principle in Compassionate Communication:
Wants, Needs, and Values are portals to connect and stay connected to others with whom we disagree.
No matter what my political affiliation, I can empathize and understand my uncle wanting to have financial security and for him to know he can provide for his family.
Looking at it this way, it is easier to stay connected with him because we are connecting to his humanity. It softens us to connect with what he wants because we want the same thing. We are less likely to call him dehumanizing names/labels like an Ignorant Wingnut, Nazi, Scapegoater, etc.
So this brings up a third important compassionate communication principle:
We separate the want/need/value from the STRATEGY to meet the want/need/value.
In the above examples, the wall keeping immigrants out is a STRATEGY to fulfill a want/need/value of financial security.
Reforming our system to break the stranglehold corporations have on our lawmakers so that cash doesn’t predominantly flow to the top is a STRATEGY to fulfill a want/need/value of financial security.
What this means is we can disagree with each other’s strategies, and it would be less likely you or the uncle will take it personally. A respectful exchange is possible.
We don’t have to like or agree with the other person’s strategies, but we can still stay amicably connected to them via respect for their needs/values. With this mindset, here’s a couple of possible responses to your uncle:
If you want to engage in a civil discussion:
“Uncle Joe. I hear it’s important to you to know you’re going to be able to provide for your family. That’s a concern I have too. So we’re on the same page as far as that goes. However, I think we do differ in what we perceive as a threat. To help me understand, would you be willing to tell me what leads you to believe immigrants are threatening your job? (or alternative question) Would you be willing to hear what I think is a threat to my financial security?
Maybe we can learn something from each other.”
If you don’t want to engage in a discussion at all as you are not seeing any value or feeling hopeless anything positive will come from it, then after your uncle makes the comment about immigrants you can respond with something like:
“Uncle Joe. I hear it’s important to you to know you’re going to be able to provide for your family. Providing for my family is a concern I have too. So we’re on the same page as far as that goes. However, from prior conversations, I feel doubtful that either one of us will change our perspective and I’m afraid our discussion might escalate and cause rancor between us and among the family. Would it be okay if we just leave it as we both have different perspectives of what is threatening our livelihood and appreciate each other for how passionate we are on the topic? And perhaps talk about other things so we can keep the good holiday cheer going?”
So the Compassionate Communication framework can support you to stay connected to your family with less stress and ill feelings by engaging in civil connecting conversations with people you find difficult or setting boundaries with such people about what to talk about at family gatherings.
Peace and goodwill can be had by all!
Admittedly, this is a vast oversimplification of what can occur in such a conversation. There are a number of curveballs that could be thrown at you by the uncle.
But that is nothing more than a skills challenge and staying loyal to cultivating a heart-to-heart connection. The more you develop your compassionate communication skills and open-heartedness, the more you can handle these kinds of hot triggering situations.
An 8-week Compassionate Communication Course starting soon to support your compassion. Besides your uncle, it is highly effective for communicating in Relationships, Parent and Child Interactions, Friends and Siblings and Business Relationships. It deepens Spirituality and is an effective alternative or addition to Marriage Counseling or therapy.