Better Angels Skills for Families at the Holidays
- The Christmas Holidays are stressful enough with busyness, gift buying, and too much family togetherness.
- But now many families are divided into red and blue political camps.
Roles Family Members Play in Political Conversations
- The Gladiator: do battle for your side against your wrong-headed relatives!
- The Defender: beat back attacks on your side
- The Sniper: get in digs but don’t engage
- The Peace Keeper: intervene to stop political disagreements
- The Bystander: keep your mouth shut and your head down
- The Engager: try to have respectful conversations across differences
Five Do’s for Engagers
1. Seek to clarify rather than convince. (“I think you’re saying that…. Am I getting that right?” “Can I tell you my view?”) Most arguments have a big dose of misreading what each person is trying to say.
2. Say “I think” and “I believe” rather than some version of “This is absolutely true and only an ignorant person would think otherwise.” Share perspectives, not dogmas.
3. Find something in common if at all possible (“I agree with you that….” “We both want to fix this problem.”) If you are in the same family, chances are you share some common values, hopes, or worries for the country.
4. Acknowledge before disagreeing. Go back and forth between acknowledging what the other person has said (“I get it that you think ….”) and making your points (“My own view is that….”). Recognizing someone’s point can keep them from just reiterating it.
1. Don’t interrupt or raise your voice. It takes two to escalate.
2. Don’t ask gotcha questions (“Do you actually believe that…?” “Isn’t it hypocritical to claim…”) Only ask questions that clarify or extend what someone has said.
3. Don’t keeping arguing facts when it’s clear that you differ on what constitutes trustworthy sources of facts. Don’t debate MSNBC information versus Fox News information if you each trust one but not the other. Just say where you got your information and let go of trying to agree on the facts for now.
4. Don’t attack motives (“Republicans just want businesses to pollute the environment for profit” or “Democrats just want to open borders for criminals and terrorists.”). Stick to policies and their consequences rather than demonizing the other side’s motivations.
Ways to deal with different family members
- For the Gladiator: if someone usually comes ready to start a political fight, don’t engage them in front of an audience, but maybe try one on one. Start by asking for their thoughts on something and be prepared for listen for a while before sharing yours. When you do, begin with something you agree with. Be prepare to disengage if things start to go badly. (“Okay, it looks like we’re on opposite sides on this one. Maybe we should leave it at that for now.”)
- For the Defender: if someone sees you as unfair and nasty to their side (and you haven’t been), calmly clarify your meaning of what you’ve been saying (“It sounds like you think I was saying X. What I am saying is Y.” If the other person does not shift based on your clarification but instead keeps attacking what they think you mean, don’t defend your point—just state it one more time and disengage. (“I realize you think I am saying that everyone on your side is bigoted or stupid. What I am saying is that a lot of them are getting their information from biased sources.” [If the other repeats, “You’re looking down on all of us, then push back: “That’s not where I’m coming from, so let’s stop arguing about something I don’t believe.”) Then move on.
- For the Sniper: if someone gets in a dig about your politics to get a rise out of you, but doesn’t want to express their own views, try to deflect with humor rather than giving a serious response and sound like the “heavy.” (Sniper: “How’s the feminist/redneck in the family going to respond to that one?” You: “This feminist/redneck is going to keep enjoying this delicious food.” If the sniper keeps going, [“Aw, come on.”], push back: “If you want to make a point right now, Jason, go for it. Otherwise I’m going to keep enjoying my food.”
- For the Peace Keeper: if someone nervously tries to stop a reasonably constructive political conversation that most others seem to be appreciating, you can try to reassure them (“I think we’re all handling this pretty well, and I hope we can finish this part of the conversation.” But if others seems to agree it’s time to stop, then pick up the conversation later with individual family members.
- For the Bystander: check out the non-verbal signals of those not engaging in the conversation. If they are quiet but seem interested, keep going. If they look distressed, move to end the group conversation and take it up individually later on. If they are just bored, well, feel free to keep going as long as most others are engaged.
Postscript for when things go badly and you’re angry at a family member: Don’t let any politician or party harm your relationships with your loved ones.