friends at a big dinner

How to Keep the Peace this Holiday Season When Politics Comes Up

The holidays are rapidly approaching, and at the same time, the country is still reeling from a highly charged presidential election. As we prepare to gather to celebrate (virtually or in-person), the potential for navigating landmines is high. How should you approach this – by letting go and getting out all your frustrations or being on your best behavior and avoiding the topic? Given the strong passions evoked by politics of late, option two may be more fantasy than reality, making the need for forethought especially important. 

Giving it some thought, preparing in advance, and having a plan, may make it possible to handle political conversations and preserve relationships despite political differences. Remind yourself to separate the person from the point of view just because you disagree; resist the urge to make it a character assessment.  People who love and care for one another can disagree and have opposing political views. With the great chasm between political parties, it’s been tempting to let relationships go when confronted with opposing viewpoints you find disagreeable or even offensive. Keep in mind that it’s usually less of choice with family members about whether or not the person will be in your life. It’s more of a question of how you can talk about it or not talk about it, how you can find other ways to connect, and how you can separate who the person is and how you feel about them from a given political point of view, even one you don’t understand.

If you have the capacity, you may want to take the position of being curious and open to hearing how your family member feels.  It’s compelling to listen to someone without pushing back or refuting their point of view – this can be counter-intuitive because it’s often accompanied by the thought, ‘if I don’t say anything, does that mean? I’m agreeing and condoning their beliefs?’ Often the opposite is true – when you genuinely hear someone out while suspending judgment, they will be more willing to do the same for you and more open to listening to what you have to say.  Ask yourself and even others: Do you have to agree to be close? How much and what types of differences are okay? A relationship can actually be strengthened by respectfully disagreeing.

Decide in advance how much you are willing to engage in political conversation and what you will do when you want to disengage from the topic.  There is often a fine line between stimulating and engaging conversation and feelings of alienation and anger, leading to tension and heated arguing. Is this the way you want to spend the holiday or weekend? Let your family members know in advance where you stand on these discussions, i.e.,  I don’t want to talk politics at all, or I’m willing to discuss it. Still, I will respectfully let you know when I’ve reached my limit and don’t want to continue the conversation.

Remember the goal of the family gathering. The pandemic has made it impossible for families to gather and celebrate milestones and holidays for many months. For many, the upcoming holiday season feels especially important and meaningful.  Keep that front of mind as opposed to getting sidetracked by political differences. Check-in with other family members to see if they want to talk politics or rather skip it.

Here are some technique that can aid in keeping the peace around political discussions:

  • Have a code word. When someone calls it, the conversation has to end when you hear that word from anyone; it’s conversation over. This can create lightness and levity.
  • Preserve the relationship and let everyone know in advance what you are and aren’t willing to discuss and that you will let them know when you’ve reached your limit – as long as you don’t use it to shut someone down from expressing themselves after you have. Setting boundaries is okay and should give relief to all.
  • Be intentional about not letting these situations drain you.  Politics matter a lot, and it can feel especially personal if you or a close friend or family member is directly affected by the political agenda.  It’s fine to point that out and ask for consideration of your point of view but protect yourself from taking on the job of convincing unyielding family members to change their views. 
  • Take a time out, go for a walk, take a bath, or do whatever you can to regroup.
  • Ensure there is built-in time for activities or conversations that don’t involve politics, be it with the larger group, just you and your significant other, or you alone.
  • If it’s a weekend plan, make sure you have time physically away from the group. Togetherness can feel great, but too much can lead to tension and feel draining.

Remember, it’s possible to feel very close to someone even when you disagree. Still, it takes a high level of mutual respect, the ability not to personalize, and a feeling that your point of view is being heard with an attempt at understanding.

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About

Tracy Ross, LCSW is an NYC-based counselor with a nationwide practice, who has helped couples and families for over 20 years to redesign their relationships and move them from volatility to versatility: from a state of breakdown to a new relationship in which all can thrive.

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© 2018 Tracy Ross, LCSW.