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How to Talk to Loved Ones with Differing Political Opinions

October 22, 2020

As the 2020 presidential election draws near, and during a time when the world seems more divided than ever, families may experience an uptick in challenging and stressful conversations. Often, when families gather together, politics become a topic many shy away from. This, in part, may result from the uncomfortable emotional toll these conversations can have on one’s value and belief system. Many avoid political discussions with their families for fear of being attacked, long-lasting disagreements, alienation, or even being cut-off. Additionally, as we approach a time when many will gather with their loved ones, some may wonder, “How do I prepare for these uncomfortable conversations, and how can I take care of myself throughout the process?”

Here are some helpful ways to cope before, during, and after challenging political conversations with family members:

Before you engage: Before engaging in a political debate with family members, remind yourself that everything is OK. It is likely that during this time, you may experience an increase in anxiety, stress, or intrusive (worried) thoughts. To combat these intense emotions, practice grounding or mindful activities such as deep belly breathing, journaling, or gratitude awareness. These practices will help regulate your physiological response to the anticipated stress while offering an opportunity to become aware of your emotions and reminding you of your values and beliefs.

Manage your expectations: When engaging in conversation with others who hold opposing political ideals, it’s important to remember that we should manage our expectations. Managing our expectations means acknowledging our loved one’s viewpoints and accepting that there will be differences in opinion. Along with recognizing these differences, we should also understand that we may not be able to change their viewpoint. Rather than changing someone’s opinion, focus on resetting the conversation in a way that will yield a more thoughtful and engaging conversation.

During the conversation, set boundaries: Setting boundaries during an uncomfortable conversation can take many forms. A physical boundary may look like creating space between you and another person to allow for de-escalation and refocusing. A verbal or emotional boundary may utilize an “I statement” approach. For example, you may express, “I appreciate your opinion. However, I don’t think I can discuss this anymore.”

Find how you relate: One of the more difficult ways to cope during a triggering conversation is finding areas where you and the family member relate. This can be challenging because we quickly forget to listen to others. Instead, we try to ensure that our point and opinion is heard and understood. Active listening is a great way to slow down the conversation and listen to what is important to the other person. Perhaps you and a loved one have different views on policing, but underneath, you both care about your community’s safety.

Conversation goals: It’s essential to understand what you hope to achieve during politically charged conversations with family members. Being aware of your personal goals about any difficult discussion can help to facilitate a constructive conversation. Determine attainable goals for these conversations. Ask yourself, “Am I trying to change this person’s opinion, or can I better understand the context of their viewpoint?”

After the conversation, reflect: As a tough conversation comes to an end, remember to reflect on areas of the conversation that bothered you and places where you felt validated. This refection period can go beyond political or moral topics. It allows for a deeper personal understanding of triggers or threats to self. If you continue to struggle with the effects of the conversation during this stage, seeking help from a mental health professional can assist you through the process.

Don’t be discouraged: Discussing political topics can be challenging and scary, especially when speaking with people we respect, love, and admire. Find strength in knowing that you were able to assert your needs and find commonality within the conversation. Recognize that loved ones may not change their mind after one conversation. Through active listening, validation, and understanding, we can process our emotions and accept family members’ political identities.

Asia McNeil, MFT, is a staff therapist at our Voorhees, NJ and Lawrenceville, NJ offices; she currently sees clients via online therapy. To set-up an appointment, you can reach her at amcneil@councilforrelationships.org or 215-382-6680 ext. 4233.