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Serving Up Discourse For The Holidays: How To Navigate Politics At Family Gatherings

The table is set, the turkey is in the oven, and holiday décor nests “just so” in every nook and cranny. It’s a familiar scene but this year it’s set against the backdrop of rabid political discourse. Instead of carving the bird amongst jovial faces, we’ll likely be cutting tension amidst guarded interactions.

This is the fear I hold as I ready my “blue” self to spend the holidays with my very “red” extended family. And given the amount of press inquiries I’ve received asking for my advice on how to handle this situation, it appears that I am not alone. So I owe it to myself, and everyone else out there who is about to walk into a highly charged environment, some thoughts on how to navigate the sea of forced interactions served up to us thanks to holiday tradition.

When I was first approached on this topic, I honest-to-god had a hard time coming up with coherent advice. My decades of experience in EXACTLY this subject matter (how to have difficult conversations, how to create connection with others, how to bridge the divide, blah-blah-blah) somehow seemed to fall short. I had never been confronted with an issue that produced as much angst, anger, and fear in me as this. What I wanted to utter was the advice to keep either your bottle or bible close to your chest at all times and be done with it. But that level of escapism didn’t quite scratch the itch and after some thought, I was able to come up with some more practical and mature options. That said, I still like this advice and see it as a viable option so I suggest we keep it on the table as Option C. Now for your other two options:

Option A: Say nothing. Hide. Stuff your feelings with mashed potatoes and gravy.

Okay, so perhaps I’m being a tad dramatic but in all seriousness, you do have the option to not engage. If you are the host, you could declare the gathering as a Politics-Free Zone explaining that you among many others have become fatigued with the issues, and while they are important and pressing, your goal is to give everyone a “day off” from debating or engaging on the topic. You just may find yourself the most popular host on the block by relieving your friends and family of their political party duties for one evening!

If you are not at the party of a host who has declared a safe zone and someone broaches the subject with you, you can respectfully decline to engage. In the same vein as our fearless host, you can share that you have given yourself this day to address all the other important and relevant topics that have been buried under the political fall-out. Such as catching up with your family on college plans, football picks, career changes, and other personal news.

Option B: Take the bait and/or go there.

Your other option is to seek out conversation or engage when you’ve been engaged. But BEFORE opting for this particular action, you need to get clear on your intention. Is your intention to: Prove you are right, change their mind, make them wrong, sprinkle shame like fairy dust blowing out of Tinker Bell’s you-know-what? If that is your intention, this is a non-starter. The election is over, the votes have been cast, and this will only result in more conflict. Please see Options A and C as better suited for you.

If, however, your intention is to: Widen your understanding, listen to learn, hear a differing perspective, and educate yourself then this, indeed, is the option for you. But be warned, you will need to possess copious amounts of patience, curiosity, and the serenity of Buddha himself. You will likely be triggered multiple times during this interaction as the other person will, naturally, be expecting an attack and may enter the conversation defensive, perhaps aggressive. But if you can hold onto your intention and avoid taking the bait of confrontation, then profound things can happen.

Remind yourself of your intention BEFORE entering into a conversation. In situations like this, I find having the objective of “being able to speak the concerns on behalf of this audience” as very powerful in keeping me grounded. This means that I am rarely making statements but, instead, am asking questions directed toward THEIR view of the issues at stake, THEIR fears involved, and the desired outcomes THEY are trying to achieve. Think of it as a reporter who has been assigned to represent this story in full color. Drop your position and don curiosity.

If I find myself asking leading questions or defending a position or questioning their intent, then I have lost the objective and thus the purpose of the interaction. When this happens, it’s either time to re-ground in the objective or disengage. But if you hang in there, remaining genuinely curious and compassionate, you will learn something about the situation or the person you didn’t know prior. And when we expand our own view of the world, we are better equipped to address the core issues and get to the cancer that is causing the turmoil. You also just may find that by allowing this person the space to be heard and seen, they may become curious with your perspective as well. Should they begin to ask questions, stay steady in your intention to describe your reality without laying blame. Lo and behold, a REAL conversation may take place and bring you closer than you had been before.

Option C: Get drunk on scripture or booze.

And then there’s this. Simply remove yourself from being a target by immediately getting hammered or spouting scripture at anyone who gets within 3 feet of you. That ought to scare off the liberals or conservatives trolling for a showdown.

In all seriousness, holidays are meant for coming together and experiencing unity and laughter. There is a common place of connection for each of us – we are family after all – and we may need to look beyond politics to find and nurture it. Or, we can view these gatherings as our first opportunity to widen our view, understand our differences, and forge a path together to the future. I hope your interactions and holidays are full of the latter.

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