People make jokes about family drama at the Thanksgiving table, and let us be clear: it is a situation ripe for humor.
But it’s also very serious. We talk about how politics is exacerbating all kinds of divides – urban/rural, black/white, rich/poor – but the most intimate pain of America’s political polarization problem lies in families.
If, in the heat of political debate, you’ve ever said to a family member – aloud or just in your mind – “How could you believe that?” “I thought I knew you,” “But you’re a good person,” “Do you hear yourself?” “Do you know what that means?” “How could you say that to me?” “Don’t you know me? I’m your son” – then you know this isn’t just a joke. In fact, it can be devastating.
When you’re looking at your mother and she’s saying things you cannot fathom given how she raised you, when she’s looking at you like she doesn’t know who she birthed, it’s no laughing matter. Generally speaking, it’s good to laugh about these things because that’s our culture’s way of reminding us that family is family anyway…but still.
Something about the 2016 election was particularly noxious in this regard. More than any election in recent memory, it was a battle about social norms that actively sought to push people’s buttons, defile things people held sacred, and malign anyone with dissimilar views. We now see the results in studies such as the one that showed many Americans think America would be better off if many of their opponents were dead.
Bill Doherty, professor at the University of Minnesota and renowned couples therapist, co-founded the nonprofit Better Angels in 2016 partly because he’d never before seen married people threaten divorce over an election. According to Bill, “Spouses are wondering, ‘Who is this person I married?’” The horror stories are truly awful.
Why are families in particular so difficult in this regard? Things that most people could say and you’d laugh, or smirk at and move on with your day, can feel like daggers when they’re coming from your sweet great aunt Flossie. And it’s strikingly hard not to fire back. You may consider yourself a typically levelheaded person, and yet once that turkey shows up and somebody says something about impeachment, your inner Sean Hannity comes out, and your higher diplomat heads for the hills.
Maybe it’s genetic. There must be an instinct rooted deep in our DNA that says if a member of the Doe family voted for Bernie, they must be cast out. Surely. Yet this shows up even with the in-laws (boy, does it ever!)…so that can’t be right. And it shows up with “chosen family,” too. The bottom line is, we identify with family. If you are family, you are part of me.
The good news is, there is something you can do. There are practical tools you can learn that can help you and your family members begin to hear one another again. Start with a Thanksgiving skills guide and articles that provide different recipes for conversational tryptophan. Or try an online skills workshop, which provides about 20 all-purpose tools for engaging across the political divide.
Better Angels is piloting a workshop devoted specifically to skills for engaging in political conversations with family members. The workshop describes six roles that tend to show up in families, some of which you’ll recognize: The Gladiator, The Defender, The Sniper, The Peace Keeper, The Bystander, and The Engager. Basic strategies include reminding yourself that your family member is not you; that you are now an adult who can have conversations without reliving the past; and that because families are predictable, you can prepare and practice how to respond differently. Above all, understand that you do not need to change your crazy uncle or self-righteous grandchild in order to have a meaningful exchange.
Most of these tools are not complicated. It’s things like paraphrasing – repeating the other person’s comments in your own words and asking if you understood them correctly, before offering your response. Some are harder – like genuinely listening to understand, rather than concocting your devastating response in your head while they finish saying whatever they’re saying – but come with a little practice.
So if you care about these relationships, there is a place to start. Arm yourself with techniques and tools for recognizing what’s going on. Defuse. Trust that eventually you’ll be able to have enjoyable political conversations with the other person in which you both learn something.
There is a wonderful flip side to all this pain: you have the power to be a healing agent. You may have to do more than your share of the listening at first. You may have to be the one to do the research and take the deep breaths. But you can turn it around.
So put on your halo and get out there.