Chief Innovation Officer, Dr. George James, Featured in Katie Couric’s Wake-Up Call: Political Divide: How To Stay Civil With Family Members This Holiday Season

November 16, 2020 | “I’ve been telling my clients to put the person before the politics”

We all know that this year has been stressful. Transitioning to school and work online, social-distancing from friends and family, confronting the racial injustices woven into our society and waiting almost a week for presidential election results: there’s no way to overstate how overwhelming these months have been. As we begin the holiday season, a stressful time in most years, Wake-Up Call reached out to Dr. George James, a licensed marriage and family therapist at Council for Relationships, for advice on how to get through the rest of 2020, with family ties still intact. Read on.

Wake-Up Call: Holiday season is notorious for stress and family fighting. Like most things this year, those pressures will be more magnified. How can we navigate a post-election holiday season amid a pandemic?

Dr. George James: I think that people can focus on connection first. Because of the pandemic, because of heightened awareness around racial injustice, because of the election, the economy, the list goes on, we haven’t necessarily had the opportunity to connect. Some families haven’t really seen each other in a while. Going into this holiday season, families should say, “Look, this is about connection. I haven’t seen you in six, seven, eight months, and I don’t want to fight because I’ve missed you.”

The principle thing I’ve been instructing my clients, and what I try to practice in my personal life, is that 2020 is an outlier. People who have never felt anxiety and depression in their lives, they’re feeling it now. And those who have are feeling it in an increased way. So it’s important to take care of yourself: whether that means going for a walk or a hike, reading a book, increasing quality time with your family or having some alone time from your family.

And what about those families who have had too much togetherness? How can we diffuse the tension if we’ve had too much time to connect?

I encourage people to pick their battles. Especially when you’ve been around each other too much, sometimes the best way to “win” is to say nothing. In relationships where family members disagree, I’ve been telling my clients to put the person before the politics: look for things you can talk about that were part of your bond to begin with. If you can’t find anything that connects you to this person, then the most productive thing might be to find other ways to unite: can you do a puzzle? Or play chess? There might be something else you agree on, like, “no matter what we believe politically, we both agree that the Giants are playing terribly this year.”

Some families have had too much time together but it isn’t necessarily quality time. Just last night I was working with a couple in their 60s. Their adult kids have left, and now they’re like, “Oh, now we have to deal with things.” That’s normal. What’s different this year is typically, they would have had a vacation or a gathering. We haven’t had that this year. Families are like, “Oh, we’re struggling because we haven’t had these outlets that would allow us to reconnect, and now we really have some work to do.”

What do you say to the family members caught in the middle of political disagreements? How can they find their way to neutral ground?

I would suggest having a family meeting when things are calm, not while the debate or argument is going on,  and say something like “Hey can we have some neutral zones, or can we have some safe words to stop us when we do get carried away?” When politics does come up, it’s important to be able to hear other people. We have to hear someone when they say, “Okay that’s too much, or that’s too far, or can we stop?”

If a family meeting isn’t something you can do, and you’re the bystander who’s unfortunately in the middle, the key is knowing when you might need to exit. Your self care might be like, “You know what, I’m going to take a walk around the block, because I know they’re about to start that argument again.”

For years, the mindset going into the holidays was: don’t talk politics. Especially this year while the country has been grappling with racial injustice and other social issues, do you think the “no politics” rule is still an option? What advice do you have to families that are now learning how to talk politics productively, perhaps for the first time?

I think if people feel like they can have conversations and have boundaries and respect each other, then yes, have those discussions. For some families, for instance, there are similar discussions around alcohol, and they ask “Should we have alcohol at our family gatherings?” Some of them have to say no because in the past it’s gotten out of hand, and it’s gotten overwhelming. They need to set restrictions or boundaries. It’s the same way with politics: if your family can’t do it respectfully, then maybe you need to say “Let’s not do that this year. Let’s put a pause on this.” If you’ve learned some communication skills, and you want to try it out, fine. But make sure you have a way to stop the conversation if it goes off track.

It’s not going to be perfect; it takes a lot of practice. A safe word isn’t going to instantly stop an argument and put everyone in a peaceful place. Give yourself and your family room to grow and work through it, so you can get to that place where communication might be better. Once again, that might take some time.

A lot of families have learned a lot and grown a lot during this time. So that willingness to share what’s been helpful for you could be helpful to others: to say, “I read this really great book about equality or mindfulness,” or whatever it might be. Sharing the good things and having things to look forward to together can also be helpful, when everything feels so negative and overwhelming.

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