Can Love Trump Family Politics This Holiday Season?

navigate family politics

How to navigate the minefield of family politics during the holidays 

As folks make the trek back home for the holidays, family politics can create even more conflict. This week we took a different turn; instead of talking about political strategy which is the main focus of this blog, we asked for help on navigating family politics from the professionals. Our final interview is a deep dive into family politics with Edward Honnold; a therapist in D.C.

1. How do I stop myself from having a blow up with my relatives about family politics over the holidays? How do I stop a relative from blowing-up?

There will be no blow-up with a relative if you practice the skills of self-containment and discipline yourself.  It "takes two" to blow things up. This is true in virtually every domestic disagreement or struggle -- with a partner, sibling, parent, child or in-law. An essential adult emotional skill is self-regulation -- of emotional expression, behaviors (such as eating or drinking), and also cognitive process (thinking). To be "connected to yourself," and therefore emotionally healthy, it is equally important to have a clear understanding of your own thoughts and of what's going on inside yourself emotionally (note the five core feelings exemplified in last year's brilliant Pixar film, "Inside Out":  fear, anger, disgust, sadness and joy). It is a different matter, however, to make good decisions about what, when, and to whom you express what you think or feel.  Holiday gatherings present a perfect opportunity to practice these skills yourself. Effective practice of good communication skills under duress is not passive, but is exceedingly powerful in maintaining balance, harmony and mutual respect.

2. Do I need to have ground rules to deal with my family politics?

No ground rules need to be set involving others.  The only ground rule you need will be set by yourself, for your own behavior and for those who come with you, with whom you may agree on current issues. You need to know only that you will make best faith efforts to practice skills of adulthood, even if under enormous stress and pressure to do otherwise. Instead of a ground rule, consider the following personal and relational objective: to value the individuality, humanity, and vulnerability of each human being in your family gathering, and to practice giving and receiving love and loving kindness, even if induced to do otherwise. In other words, "be the best person you can be". If others behave badly, despite your best efforts to behave respectfully, it will only heighten the importance of practicing the behavioral and communication skills of "mastery".

3. Do I call folks ahead of time? Who do I call?

There is no need to call anyone in advance, except possibly to other relatives who will be gathering who may agree with you politically, and who might need some coaching along these lines.

4. Do I confront folks I disagree with?

Usually not. Holiday gatherings are not a good time to confront those with odious points of view. An argument turning on issues of basic human decency is unlikely to change minds for the better in a family holiday gathering. The campaign is over; most people would prefer to speak of other things at this point. Arguments on these issues may even harden others' negative opinions, as well as rupture valuable family relationships. Under very difficult circumstances, where your personal ethics require you to speak up when an offensive or bigoted statement is made, you could practice active listening and empathy: "I understand that you have very strong feelings on this topic. I have strong feelings about this issue too, and I see it differently from you. I hope that sometimes we can have a thoughtful conversation searching for a different way to view this situation."  

5. What do you say to your liberal relatives who blame you for not winning the election?

This will present another good opportunity to practice non-defensive and inclusive behavior. You can reach inside yourself for an authentic, intimate statement in response. For example, "I share your disappointment with this election result. Personally, I am devastated, just as you are. I worked hard to achieve a different result. I continue to reflect on what could have been done differently, or better, to achieve a more positive result. As a political party, and as a nation, we all have some serious soul-searching to do."

6. How do I avoid talking about politics without my relatives thinking I am a jerk?

In the short term, earning the most "points" in family public opinion need not be your first objective. Instead, you can try to exercise wise judgment, discretion, self-discipline, broad mindedness and loving kindness. If you behave as the "best person you can be," you are not likely to fall into disrepute. There are many important issues to discuss other than politics or public policy. Is anyone interested in sports, the arts, vacation travel, and the out of doors?  

7. Is avoidance really the best policy?

If avoidance seems too evasive and narrow-minded, or is impossible to sustain, you can instead: (1) point out any positive attributes, behaviors or decisions in the opposing candidate that you can find -- for example, Trump’s willingness during the transition to meet with those who have different points of view (2) express understanding that Trump gives voice to many Americans who have felt dispirited and abandoned; and most importantly (3) reach toward an understanding of "common ground" -- for example, a concern for rebuilding our nation's infrastructure. Any family could have a wonderful discussion of infrastructure priorities: what roads, bridges, tunnels, park facilities, metro lines, high-speed train lines, and national monuments should be our top priorities? 

8. How can I persuade my relatives to not vote for trump again? 

Don't bother. Most attempts to change another person's political beliefs meet with limited success. Many opportunities will present themselves before November 2020 to air political beliefs and convictions. Furthermore, a holiday gathering is a poor forum for a political debate. Relatives gather to share time together and to remember what joins them, not what sets them apart.  Undertaking a political debate at a family gathering is sure to turn people off, strain family relationships, and could prove counter-productive.  (Do you want your relatives over the holidays to attempt to persuade you to join Trump's campaign to "Make America Great Again"?  How likely would they succeed?)

9. I have anxiety about spending time with relatives how can I make it less stressful? 

If you are anxious being with relatives because of their political beliefs, then it is definitely time to "take a break" from political debate during the holidays. If you are anxious being with relatives for other reasons, join the crowd: strains in family relationships often become more acute during the forced intimacy and extended "together time" of holidays. Try to:  (1) get lots of exercise;  (2) go on walks, even in the snow or rain;  (3) pay special attention to any available children or pets;  (4) propose outings to local community or holiday events, or join the crowds at the movies;  (5) propose a group game or do a complex puzzle, as a distraction;  (6) go to bed at a reasonable hour, to maximize your sleep and increase your endurance;  and (7) limit consumption of alcohol, which often fosters irritability and conflict.    

10. We are now two years into Trump and I still blame my uncle for Trump being President, What should I do?

Your uncle didn't elect Trump by himself. He had plenty of company. Give your uncle a break. Beat him at a game of checkers or chess -- or let him have the pleasure of beating you. Who cares who wins at a board game?

11. How do I talk to relatives who did not vote and don’t vote? Any ideas? 

During a lull in a family gathering -- not during a holiday meal, gift exchange, or at a spiritual moment -- you might gently ask these relatives how they view their practice of not voting in light of recent political and historic events. Ask them what they think, and say little about what you think. Simply asking the question will suggest what your position is. In this setting, "Less is More."

12. How can we do something as a family that is positive for the country? 

(1) Strengthen the bonds between you, by communicating honestly and respectfully;  (2) spend time together outdoors;  (3) join in a community service project or food offering;  (4) provide understanding and support for any family member, neighbor or family friend in distress;  (5) avoid political sarcasm, name-calling and castigation;  (6) keep TV viewing to a minimum -- instead, listen to music;  and (7) review together the summary statement of the recent international climate change agreement reached in Katowice, Poland.

Bonus: What else should I do before, during or after the holidays to keep a good relationship with the family I love but don't always agree with?

To build strong family relationships, do your best to practice the skills of: (1) genuine empathy; (2) active interest in the attitudes and perspectives of others; (3) sharing personal vulnerability and uncertainty; (4) building on strengths and emphasizing the positive; and (5) respect for differences and the individual rights of all family members, including especially those with whom you disagree. If all else fails, you can always say:  "I appreciate your strong positions. I don't agree with them, but I completely respect your right to have them. I am pleased that in this family, there is room for diversity in point of view. I love each of you very much."

For information on Edward Honnold email him at ed@edwardhonnold.com

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