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26 Nov

How to Handle Thanksgiving Among Family Members with Different Political Views

Amy Jones, MSW, MFT, LSW, works with individuals, couples, and families at our University City and Paoli offices. Read on to learn her approach and tips for dealing with family members with different political views during Thanksgiving. Amy Jones also provided her professional opinion on KYW Newsradio. Click here to listen to the radio segment “Food, Family, Politics: What’s Acceptable to Discuss at the Thanksgiving Table?” 

Dealing with family members who have different political views is not a new issue. Families have been trying to figure out how to deal with different political views and maintain relationships for a long time. The current political climate in the U.S. is very divisive, and those divisions extend to family members. A person’s politics can reflect their identity and values. Many people are choosing to avoid being in relationships with people whose values differ. Therefore, there can be ample anxiety and emotions around coming together at Thanksgiving and other holiday gatherings, where there are family members who hold diverse political views.

My first suggestion is to figure out why you are choosing to go to family Thanksgiving events in the first place. What are you hoping to get out of it? What do you value? For example, you may decide to go in order to connect with your family, to enjoy a day off from work, to eat delicious food, or to watch or play football. Most people are showing up to Thanksgiving to partake in family traditions and try to reconnect with people they might not get to see throughout the year.

Secondly, you have choices for how you want to engage with relatives who have different political views. You may not even want to bring up politics; you can choose to talk about other topics. Also, you can set boundaries that say “I care about you, and I know our relationship can really suffer if we talk about politics so let’s stick to other topics.”

An old saying on etiquette is to not talk about religion or politics at the dinner table. That’s probably because there is so much room for disagreement. However, I would like to challenge that notion that we should not discuss hard topics like politics. I don’t think we’ve really been taught how to disagree with one another and stay connected. We as a society can challenge ourselves to grow and learn how to have conflict and stay connected. This can start with our families.

If you choose to talk about politics with family over Thanksgiving, I have some tips on how to do it in a constructive way that allows you to also stay connected and deepen your relationship with family members who have different views.

1. Start slowly. If you are going to Thanksgiving to reconnect, leave your political stickers, hats, and t-shirts at home; these can communicate division. You may not have seen certain family members for a whole year. Start with asking what people have been up to. This might naturally lead into conversations about politics and political issues, but from your individual experiences.

2. Regulate your emotions. Our stances on political issues can really speak to our core values and identity. This means it can be a highly emotional topic for people that can cause us to go into our “fight, flight, or freeze” responses. If this response system is activated, it is difficult to listen and dialogue about ideas. So, soothe yourself by remembering again why you are at Thanksgiving to begin with, take deep breaths, and take a step back. This will allow you to choose how you want to respond rather than just react.

3. Use good communication skills. People fundamentally want to be heard and valued, especially by people they love and care for. They are expecting to be loved, heard, and cared for by you, and you are expecting to be loved, heard, and cared for by them. When that doesn’t happen, regardless of the issue we are talking about, communication can get off track. So, listen to really hear the other person. Don’t half listen and actually be preparing what you’re going to say back to them. Reflect back what you hear them saying. Check to see if you understand them correctly. Sometimes we think that if we understand someone that means we agree with him or her; this is not true. We can actually understand other people’s experiences, and not agree with them. If we understand someone’s point of view, it puts us in a better position to actually dialogue about issues.

4. Stick to your own experiences, opinions, and ideas. Talk from your own perspective, and do not assume you know someone else’s perspective. Use phrases like “My experience is…”, “I think…”

5. Correct and educate people’s words and behaviors with compassion, by focusing on the behaviors and issues rather than the person. Be open to learning yourself. Language and terms are constantly changing, and we can choose to have gratitude for others who help us grow.

6. Avoid escalating the conversation. Don’t attack the person with criticism. Criticism is about making comments that imply someone has character flaws (rather than focusing on behaviors). Worse is communicating from a place of contempt, which comes from believing that we are better, smarter, or more advanced. This derails a conversation and puts people on the defense. We are no longer listening, dialoguing, or connecting.

7. Keep the conversations short. This is not a place for a long monologue. We don’t need to come to dinner prepared for a debate with multiple research studies and talking points. There are lots of people there, so try to make space for everyone to talk about a variety of topics.

These communication tips can be helpful with topics such as politics, and other difficult conversations between family members.

Amy Jones specializes in supporting young adults in their 20s and 30s, young couples, non-profit professionals, caretakers, people going through life transitions, and people who have experienced trauma. To set up an appointment, you can reach her at 215-382-6680 ext. 4405 or amycjones@councilforrelationships.org.

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