Trumping the Trump Card: Surviving Political Differences During the Holidays

Thanksgiving is the second happiest day of the year in the US - outranked only by Christmas - according to a Gallup poll.  But Trump’s surprise victory has many Americans reeling in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, and not surprisingly, many are dreading Thanksgiving as they anticipate enduring painful political debates at the dinner table.

Political differences are rarely in and of themselves the root of holiday conflict. People’s inability to listen respectfully to differing opinions and validate one another’s feelings, however, is.

 Here’s a list of Do’s and Don’ts to get you through this Thursday:              

Do Listen. Let your family members express themselves. Paraphrase back what you hear them say every couple of sentences. This will slow down the pace of the conversation and let them know that you’re listening to what they’re saying and actually hearing them.

Do NOT Interrupt. Bite your tongue. Excuse yourself for a bathroom break. Do whatever’s necessary to control the impulse to interject, talk over, or interrupt when others are speaking. It’s the first step in escalating emotions.

Do Validate. You don’t have to agree with an opposing view to validate that person’s perspective. As a woman, a Jew, a lesbian, a social worker, and a New Yorker, I’m a political Progressive. Still, I have Republican family members. They live in the suburbs, some of which are in southern states. They don’t see what I see as a New Yorker. They don’t necessarily understand why my wife and I are worried. They don’t live among Muslims, people of color, immigrants, LGBT’s. When you don’t live with it, it’s easy to view our fears as hyperbolic and unwarranted. I can understand and validate why, for them, there is no reason for anyone to be worried.  It doesn’t mean I agree with them. But it’s appropriate to let people know that their viewpoints make sense to you, that you can understand why they feel the way they feel. And that you can respectfully tolerate their differing views. The challenge is to stop there before you go down the rabbit hole below.     

 Do NOT Try to change opinions. The hallmark of being in a successful relationship is to prioritize what is in the best interest of the relationship over the individual needs of either member in the relationship. It’s fine to speak from your perspective and to share your own experience. It’s a recipe for disaster to try to sway the other person’s opinion.

First of all, very few are truly open to changing their political beliefs. And the surest way to provoke Uncle Andy to dig his heels in is by explaining to him why the way he sees the world is wrong.  It causes a power struggle. It has the unintended consequence of invalidating his perspective. And it’s inflammatory. Resist the urge.

Do Express Yourself. After you’ve appropriately listened to your family’s views, go ahead and share your own. Speak respectfully, keeping your tone even and your volume down. Know that if your audience has differing opinions, they’ll be inclined to read your body language, tone, and meaning as being aggressive and/or defensive. Compensate for that by slowing your roll.

Do NOT use inflammatory language. Avoid emotionally compelling language. It can flood your body with adrenalin which will jack up your nervous system causing your body to respond as though it’s under attack. Imagine you don’t have a stake in whether or not people agree with you or see things from your perspective. Don’t curse. Even if you normally do.  Keep it low and slow.  It’s only a few days.

Do Know When to Call Time Out. At a certain point (ideally after everyone has expressed her opinion and received validation), continuing the conversation becomes unproductive. It’s okay to agree to disagree. The point of sharing your view isn’t to garner agreement. It’s to speak your truth, hear your family members’ truth, and move on to lighter topics. Your family’s job is not to listen while you vent freely. That’s your shrink’s job.

Maybe You Have The Flu. Look, I know that the above-referenced tips are hard as hell to follow. I’ll be cozied up in New York City with a handful of friends this Thanksgiving, none of whom are likely to provoke me the way my family does. If you don’t think you’re able to control yourself, it’s better to bow out this year. Let the dust settle. Family relations is a long-term game. Sitting one year out is better than showing up and striking out.