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Is it possible to talk about politics with family? 10 tips for having discussion without contention

With the political rhetoric circulating in our nation, many families are stymied in trying to determine how to talk to each other when political ideologies differ. We’re all aware of the need to avoid contention when we disagree, but that can be a tall order when discussing politics.

If we are to disarm contentious conversations, it helps to start by recognizing that everyone has something to offer. As we value both our own humanity and the humanity of others, greater understanding can follow.

So how can we keep loving family relations intact while talking politics? It might seem impossible. But these 10 tips may help you navigate those tricky family conversations.

  1. Check your agenda at the door. In some families, there can be a push to change the political persuasion of another. These rigid conversations rarely have the desired effect and instead end up creating hard feelings and polarization. 

    Rather than hoping for change, work on becoming curious. How can you gain a greater understanding of your loved one? How can you respectfully express your own thoughts? Harmony and unity in families have little to do with agreement and everything to do with toleration, love, respect, and acceptance. When we practice those traits, we grow closer as families regardless of whether we agree. It helps to drop the agenda.

  2. Come together as a family to make the decision about political discussions. The decision to discuss politics can’t be made by just one or two family members. It requires the whole family to come together to determine how the issue of politics will be handled. If you have siblings or parents on different sides of the aisle, discuss whether you want politics to be a part of your family gatherings, and if so, to what extent. If your family can bounce the topic off each other without hurt feelings, then your limits should reflect that reality.

    Some families may choose to leave politics behind when they’re together. Choosing to refrain from political discussions with family members isn’t an avoidance technique if family members recognize there are political differences. It just means they prefer to spend their time together enjoying other experiences.

    If there’s even one member of your family who struggles with hurt feelings or is sensitive to political discussions, take this into consideration when deciding the future of political conversations in their presence. Healthy families aren’t necessarily democracies where the majority rules, especially when it comes to serious topics. It’s more important that everyone’s position is considered and taken into account. The Lord’s love was always reflective of the “one.” Our family choices can take that into consideration. If there are one or two family members who don’t want to participate in political discussions, respect their feelings and make arrangements to talk about these things when not in their company.

    If you decide to have political discussions, here are some things to consider:

  3. Set a timer so the conversations have a beginning and an end. It’s easier to make sure politics won’t override a visit when there’s a specific number of minutes dedicated to that discussion. In using a timer, each family member can have a pre-determined amount of time to share their beliefs without interruption. Then, there can be a few minutes designated for healthy and respectful rebuttal or conversation with the individual whose turn it is to get the last say. This can encourage respect and help curb one individual from taking over the conversation.

  4. Don’t belittle, disregard, dismiss, or otherwise minimize the political beliefs, experiences, or opinions of the other. When family members feel diminished, family relationships can fray, creating lasting wounds that erode family unity.

    When we roll our eyes, laugh, or show disgust, we’re dismissing what the other is trying to express and we are no longer engaged. Worse yet, this behavior shows contempt. Sarcasm and phrases such as, “Your loss if you don’t get it,” “I can’t believe we’re from the same family,” “How can you think that way?” and “You’re so misguided” are also full of contempt. Even if we don’t realize it, when we behave this way, we are passing moral judgment and setting up ourselves and our opinions as superior. President Dallin H. Oaks stated in April 2021 general conference, “We encourage our members to refrain from judging one another in political matters. We should never assert that a faithful Latter-day Saint cannot belong to a particular party or vote for a particular candidate.”

    Before you say anything, consider your tone and whether what you want to say is helpful. In trying to determine whether to speak, it’s best to consider how you can further the cause that you’re passionate about instead of demeaning what you don’t appreciate.

  5. Keep each other safe. If one family member begins to chide or berate another, advocate for the one being criticized, even if you don’t agree with their position. This can be done by reminding the family that everyone’s opinion is valid, no matter how they may differ, and disagreement is normal and healthy. Also, in the effort to keep family members safe, be considerate in what you post on social media when it comes to political content. Again, consider promoting what you love instead of bashing what you hate.

  6. Create personal boundaries. Boundaries are at the heart of every strong relationship and every well-adjusted individual. With family rules in place around political discussions, the boundaries become clearer and easier to uphold. But in the end, you get to determine how much of a political discussion you want to take. If the conversation gets overwhelming, you can explain that you need to take a break and leave the discussion. If you’re feeling attacked, you can stop the conversation and refer back to a family rule or consider a new one. When the conversation is taking place in your home, you can ask for things to either be reined in or discontinued.

    Creating personal boundaries can sometimes be uncomfortable, but if we work from a place of kindness, we can assert our needs around political discussions without regret.

  7. If someone in the family becomes distressed or overly excited about politics or pops off with a political comment when it’s been decided that politics won’t be discussed, then it might be helpful to engage the most level-headed family member. This individual can acknowledge the importance of the subject matter to the distressed family member while also reminding them of your family rules and how politics have been corralled either for a specific time or are off-limits during this particular family gathering. Remember to give each other a break if there’s an oversight.

  8. Be willing to apologize if you overstep. None of us are immune to saying things we wished we hadn’t during a vigorous conversation. When this happens, be willing to apologize for your part. It takes strength to admit our own culpability in a discussion gone wrong. But a heartfelt apology can go a long way in healing any hurt that has come between family members.

  9. Talk about other things during family time. In our current political climate, it’s easy to forget that there are plenty of things that connect families. Shared memories and common beliefs, the joy of each other’s company, and a deeper emotional connection can foster great conversations that have nothing to do with politics. Even if you decide to talk about politics, make sure you’re devoting a good chunk of your time together discussing and enjoying other things.

  10. With your family, create rules of engagement that fit your specific situation. Make sure each family member is taken into consideration in the effort to curb disrespectful conversation and hurtful behaviors so that everyone feels secure and safe in sharing. Family rules can determine the best course of action for the whole family while also quieting those who may try to prod others into conversations they’d rather not have. They can also allow for differing opinions to be discussed without conversations disintegrating into shouting matches or fake agreement.

    When we practice respect and tolerance throughout these difficult conversations, we’re creating a space where families can grow closer. Elder Ulisses Soares stated that “civil discourse means a grown-up, earnest, rigorous exchange of ideas, not a diluted, vague, insincere avoidance of disagreement.”

When we engage in civil discourse, we expand our ability to hold the beliefs of others that may differ from our own. This expansion comes from love and fosters greater love through respect. So much of life is about learning to hold what is irreconcilable. We get to practice this when family members hold different political beliefs and we’re willing to accept their position without feeling as if our own is threatened.

As we employ respect and tolerance in our conversations, we’re also giving each family member the opportunity to practice good listening skills, self-discipline, and a widening of love and appreciation for one another. When family members feel safe, heard, and respected, everyone wins by the creation of stronger family bonds that can withstand the current and future political storms.

Featured image: Shutterstock
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Shelly Johnson-Choong, Contributor

Shelly Johnson-Choong, MSW, is a therapist with a private practice in Washington State. Shelly specializes in helping clients through anxiety, depression, and women's issues (including infertility), caregiving, and other challenges facing Latter-day Saints. 

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