How to Treat Your Politically Opposite Family Member This Holiday Season

Politics, amirite
Politics, amirite dima_sidelnikov/iStock
With the holiday season here, families are bound to spend more time with one another and have even closer conversations. Inevitably, when conversations run too long, the risk of politics being brought to the table increases. There’s always that one relative who feels strongly about politics and wants you to know their opinions. You might find yourself opposing your relative’s views and muster up a fiery urge to argue, but perhaps there’s a better way to handle such a situation.

People get themselves into heated arguments when discussing politics for a variety of reasons, but they boil down to what politics essentially is: deciding how people should live their lives — the “right” way. Clearly, if everybody has their own view of what is right, all sides will lock horns forever. That doesn’t mean you should repress your opinion; it means to acquire etiquette and know when to express your thoughts and when not to.

It can be difficult to know when debates about current events are appropriate. For example, Park Cities counseling therapist Elizabeth Scrivener, who has had years of experience in communication and listening, thinks politics should be avoided at the dinner table during a festive celebration.

“Politics are not to be discussed as dinner conversation,” Scrivener says. “Festive, thankful, fun conversations that are lighthearted, entertaining, funny and hopeful create an enjoyable time for all guests. If someone brings up politics, it is best to immediately smile and then change the subject. Do not address the comment and do not shame the other person. Simply bring up a fun, festive and possibly preplanned conversation.”

“Politics are not to be discussed as dinner conversation." – Elizabeth Scrivener

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Every family has a different way of handling conversation. Some take it lightly while others take it personally. Anna Zapata, a professional counselor and co-host of the Pop Culture Therapists podcast, believes that if a family brings up politics and no one looks like they’re having fun, then it’d be best to take charge and change the mood or back away.

“I’ve heard of some families with opposing views be able to poke fun at each other in a loving way and nothing is taken too seriously, while some families get volatile and it ends up ruining the holiday occasion,” Zapata says. “I tell my clients constantly, ‘You never have to stay stuck.’ If it’s not comfortable for you to talk politics during holiday occasions and it gets brought up, change the subject, set a limit on the conversation or leave the room.”

Zapata likewise advises verbally expressing discomfort to the person speaking about their views.

“If you’re hurt by a family member bulldozing you with their opinion, you can speak up and say something to the effect of ‘I feel dismissed and disrespected when politics gets brought up. Can we take a break from this conversation?’” she says.

Kristen Diou, also a professional counselor and the other half of the Pop Culture Therapists podcast, suggests creating boundaries for these kinds of conversations, as that can be a helpful guide in knowing how to act.

“Boundaries can help protect four things: time, energy, emotions and your values," Diou says. "If you feel like you are being baited into an argument that you don't want to have, it's time to set a boundary. First start verbally using ‘I feel statements,’ as Anna mentioned. If your verbal boundary isn't being respected, it's totally fine to remove yourself from the situation. We can only control our own choices.”

No one should ever be forced to reveal their political stances if they don’t want to. In that same respect, no one should force others to hear them out. To create strong family bonds, sometimes it’s a requirement to make the effort to understand one another, and that includes political sides. In circumstances such as these, asking your family members if they are just as open as you are about talking politics becomes a crucial aspect of tolerance.

“Choose a time,” Scrivener says. “Ask family members if they are open to talking about a specific issue. I believe that speaking broadly can cause more disruption than addressing specific concerns, beliefs and offering ideas on solutions.”

If family members already have troubled relationships because of opposite viewpoints, then perhaps going into a full-on family discussion isn’t a good idea. Think about why you want to bring up politics to begin with and the result you want from the conversation.

“Be realistic about what you want to accomplish from a political discussion over the holidays,” Diou says. “Do you really think that your family member will be open to hearing your perspective? Will your opinion be valued or will people end up on the attack? A political discussion is one thing, but a heated argument that ends up with yelling, name-calling or someone in tears is something entirely different.”

Perhaps an important thing to keep in mind is that children will most likely listen or be close to these debates, as well. Getting caught up in heated arguments might divert the attention away from them, but it does not hide the fact that the behavior they’re exposed to will influence the way they act when they’re older. It all leads up to a heavy question: What sort of impression do you want to leave your young relatives or children?

“As a children's therapist, trust me on this: Your kids are listening,” Diou says. “I can't tell you how many times parents swear their kids were asleep or in a different room, when really they heard everything. So most importantly, be mindful if children are around during these debates. Kids are watching and learning family dynamics during this time. We are modeling to kids how to handle frustration or even anger. If you want your kid to remain calm and express themselves when facing adversity, model that. If you want your kid to learn healthy boundaries, show them that.”
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