7 Strategies For Dealing With Political Debates Over The Holidays

‘I’ statements, empathy, and knowing when to leave the table are key.

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The holidays are basically tomorrow, and whether you're having a Zoom family Thanksgiving or are getting everyone tested before descending on Dad's house, there's bound to be some holiday drama — particularly in an election year. Finding ways to stay calm during a political debate with family members over the holidays can help you get through the end of the year.

Part of what makes political debates so painful when they take place with family is that many people have formative memories of feeling neglected at some point or another by loved ones. So when you venture a political belief, supported by strong emotions, and that belief gets cast aside, judged, ignored, or criticized, it can feel like you're being cast aside, judged, ignored, or criticized, too. Sometimes, it's not about the politics as much as it's about childhood feelings floating very close to the surface during the holidays, ready to bubble over at the first mention of mail-in ballots.

Remaining aware of your personal traumas — which can involve childhood pains or identities that your family doesn't understand — is helpful in keeping a healthy emotional distance when it comes to political debates. Here are some other actionable tips to keep yourself calm this year.


Understand What's Behind Political Leanings

"Political opinions are really a representation of one’s expectations regarding change," says Seon Kim, a licensed marriage and family therapist. "Some are ‘conservative’ and some are ‘liberal,’ meaning some deal with change through maintaining and some manage change through making adjustments. To have a productive discussion with family and keep your cool, you need to establish and monitor how you’ll talk to each other — the ‘process’ of the conversation — regardless of its contents."


Don't Bait People

You're probably seeing a lot of calls to use the upcoming holidays as an opportunity to talk to your family members — like, really talk — in order to bridge the divide of hyper partisanship, or foster understanding around race, identity, and more. While that's a noble (and often effective) undertaking, know when to pick your battles — and how to approach those convos.

"Don’t bait people who you know do not agree with you into a debate," licensed marriage and family therapist Nicole Richardson tells Bustle. "It will only upset you. If you know before you get there that you are not on the same page, be conscious of not bringing it up." Rather than poking the bear, lean in to opportunities to discuss these topics as they arise naturally, or maybe choose a less public venue than the dinner table to ask your cousin why he didn't vote.


You Don't Have To Agree

Just because someone you care about disagrees with you doesn't mean they reject you wholesale as a person. Though it's extremely painful when someone in your family disagrees with political issues that are fundamental to who you are, and how safely you can live your life in this country, "Remember that someone can love and care about you and still completely disagree with you on an issue," says Richardson. "Yes, of course politics matter, but people see the world differently. That does not mean they cannot love and accept you as you are."


Aim For Empathy

Feeling empathy for someone — even when they disagree with you, and even when that's painful — can be an enormous shift in power, helping you feel more in control of the narrative and conversation.

"The goal of a political discussion might be to understand without agreeing with one another," licensed marriage and family therapist Anita Chlipala tells Bustle. "You're a different person than your family members, and so it's inevitable for people to have different ideas of what's 'right' or 'best' in politics and for our country. The reality is that there is no right. There are subjective perspectives and in order to keep from throwing a turkey leg across the room, it's necessary to understand why your family members believe what they believe."


Give People Time To Digest New Information

If you do decide that the time and emotional investment of trying to persuade someone is worth it, then know that patience is key.

"If you want to change someone’s mind about something you feel passionately about, be patient and able to hear why they don’t see it the way you do," says Richardson. "Then, calmly and respectfully explain why you see it differently. Then, let them think. If they have an opposite viewpoint, one conversation is not going to get them to do a 180. But perhaps you can plant a seed."


Use 'I' Statements & Reflection To Foster A Safe Environment

You can deescalate a lot of people's feelings of being criticized by being specific about your own beliefs, values, and feelings.

"It’s crucial for your family to focus on fostering a loving and safe environment during the discussion," Kim says. "You can do this by using reflection and ‘I’ statements. Reflection is simply you reflecting back on what the person is saying in order to avoid any misunderstandings or misinterpretation of their messages. Speaking in ‘I’ statements is a communication method that focuses on expression of self rather than defining the other. This helps any unnecessary judgment on the other."

A reflection might look like you responding to a comment by saying, "What I'm hearing you say is..." or otherwise repeating a portion of their comment. This illustrates that you're hearing and responding to the other person, and eliminates assumptions you might be making. Putting feelings into 'I' statements — "I feel like...," "My sense is that..." — makes it clear that you're speaking for yourself. This lets the other person know you're coming from a personal place, and not trying to speak for a broad swath of people. Both of these strategies can help your conversation feel more specific — and thus, more approachable.


Know When To Walk Away

Ultimately, you have to know when to call time. Removing yourself from a cycle of unproductive, or even destructive conversations is important for preserving your ability to make it through the rest of the holiday.

"Give yourself permission to take a break," says Richardson. "If you are the dissenter in the group and they are talking about things you feel strongly and differently about, give yourself permission to take a nap or go for a walk or run errands. You don’t have to sit and listen to it. You don’t have to make a show of [leaving] because that will likely bring you some heat. You can peacefully and quietly go find something else to do."


Seon Kim, licensed marriage and family therapist

Nicole Richardson, licensed marriage and family therapist

Anita Chlipala, licensed marriage and family therapist

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