(This article is an edited version of the article “Battleground Family Thanksgiving – What you can do to close the divide, while maintaining your integrity” written shortly after the 2016 U.S. presidential election.)
There are families where the subjects of politics and religion were declared off-limits years ago. If yours is not one of those families, then family gatherings are ripe opportunities for increased division. You may find yourself contributing to that division even if you don’t mean to. It’s all too easy to exchange words with family members in a way that leads to a drop in goodwill and affection – a “hardening of the shield” – and thus an even larger separation between you and them. Scale that across thousands of families – and the division in this country widens even further. I’m hoping that this post will give you some ideas on how to communicate with those who disagree with you, and to maintain your integrity – without widening the divide.
Years ago a friend, let’s call him Jack, texted me on the way to the airport. Jack was about to fly to visit a family member in crisis, and was feeling quite anxious about how communication might go – fully expecting that it could go very badly. He asked me if I could offer some immediately usable suggestions that could be digested within a couple of hours. If you were to ask me the same question as you prepare for a family gathering, here’s what I’d say to you…
Let’s talk first about support and self-connection.
Self-connection means first getting clear on how you’re doing. How are you doing? How are you feeling? What are you afraid is going to happen next in the country, in the world, or just in your upcoming conversations with a family member? What are you hoping for? Get as clear as you can on where you’re coming from before you start having any tough conversations. You don’t have to tell any of what you discover to anyone, but there’s value in simply knowing what’s making you tick.
Are you angry? Have you checked for pain, fear, or powerlessness lying beneath the anger? Your anger alone will likely be met with defensiveness and offensiveness. It’s often very vulnerable to admit to another person that you’re experiencing pain, fear, or a sense of powerlessness, but that mixture of courage with vulnerability is sometimes the only thing that will create connection with someone who’s on the other side of a political or philosophical divide. No guarantees, of course, but you can decide if you want to try it.
If you can manage it, do some guessing about the individual members of your family. What are they feeling? What are they most longing for? I’m recommending that you humanize them, even if you’re horrified by their choices. Get support in doing these things, if doing them alone is too challenging.
Where do you get support? This could mean the emotional support of a therapist, coach, or someone else who’s able to hang out with you in the more emotionally intense moments. It could also mean simply the sense of support you get from talking to someone with whom you have a lot of shared views and easy rapport. Whoever those people are, I recommend having them “on call” when you’re in any situation that might be stressful and upsetting – ready to exchange a few words with you when you most need them. Talk out your hopes and fears for the family gathering before it begins, and have a plan to talk about how it went once it’s over. Having a empathetic, comforting, supportive interaction before, during and/or after a potentially tough one often leads to the tough one being a lot less tough.
Self-connection remains very important during a conversation. Take a long breath before opening your mouth to speak – maybe three if you’re starting to experience strong emotions. If you’re getting angry, it’s very often wisest to admit it and step away to regain self-connection.
Sometimes you can get yourself the time to breathe by saying, “Hey, I want to say something, but can I take just a few seconds to gather my thoughts first?” Then breathe. It makes it much easier to feel what’s going on for you, and hence to talk from that place of what’s real for you. It also gives you a chance to reconnect with your intentions. Which brings us to…
What are your intentions?
Get clear on what your intention is behind being in a particular conversation, and behind any specific thing you say. What is your intention in terms of the impact on the other person, on you, on the relationship between you, on those who’re witnessing the conversation? If your words and actions start to diverge from your intention, then pause, breathe, and check – do I want to change my intention here, or do I want to adjust my communication choices back to match my original intention.
Imagine you enter a conversation, consciously or unconsciously, with one or more of these intentions
- To destroy the other person’s logic and arguments
- To show the other person to be ignorant, ill-informed, and not to be trusted
- To win and have everyone see that I won
Those might be typical intentions for a presidential candidate during a debate or rally, or for both people on opposing sides of a political “discussion.” Bring those intentions into a family gathering and you’ve got quite a recipe for heated conflict. Introduce the disinhibiting effects of alcohol, and the…er…accelerating effects of sugar, and the recipe can become even more powerfully destructive. Now add these extra intentions…
- To “give them a piece of my mind”
- To unleash my anger, pain and fear on them
- To make them ashamed of themselves
- To meet violent words with violent words
…and I think you can picture how that’s going to go. Some of your family members might be quietly rolling their eyes, or retreating to safety, having seen it all before, even if they broadly agree with one or another of you already. Eventually, someone might intervene, although it takes courage to do so. Pictionary anyone? Or maybe the sleep-inducing effects of consuming a large meal might cut the conflict short…
But, I hear you say, surely it’s OK for me to enter the conversation with these intentions because I have right on my side? I’m just trying to set things straight, to help the other woefully misguided person see the error of their ways, beliefs, and thoughts. And anyway, they deserve to be put in their place. You’re perhaps seeing the flaw in that logic already; the other person is equally convinced that you’re the woefully misguided one. They’re just as certain of their conclusions, convictions, and news sources as you are of yours. Plus which the whole idea of “deserve” in this context is a minefield of disconnection and conflict. So, no matter how solid you feel in your rightness, entering this situation with the above intentions is a pretty reliable way to create a verbal boxing match. I expect there will be no winners.
Here’s one of the most powerful questions I know: “What would that give me that I value?” Ask this question about the above intentions and you’ll come up with other, perhaps more fundamental, motivations. Examples might be: “I want to win the discussion so as to have my family’s support in trying to create a safer world”, or “I want to win because I want respect”, or “I want acceptance for my viewpoint because without it I have no sense of belonging here any more,” “I want to have a sense of power and influence in my family.”
Notice this too: the initial intentions laid out above are not likely to help you succeed in these deeper motivations. Why? Because the initial intentions above set you both up for verbal violence – judging, blaming, criticizing, demanding, shoulds, right/wrong thinking, defensiveness, interrupting to talk over the other person, acceleration, escalation. These contagious communication choices, which we started to learn at a very young age, leave little room for attention to the underlying needs like mutual support, respect, or belonging.
What happens inside you when you consider the following alternative intentions?
- To listen with focus when the other person is speaking
- To be curious about what it’s like for the other person to be who they are
- To understand the universal human motivations that lead them to think, speak, and vote the way they do (like their desire for respect, understanding, safety, a sense of power and influence, a sense of self-worth and mattering…)
- To make clear that you hold these fundamental needs of theirs as equally important to your own, even if you wish for them to change the strategies they use to meet those needs
- To know what they’re afraid of, nervous about, and hopeful for – and how their politics relate to those hopes and fears
- To speak from the heart, and to say only what you can say with sincerity, integrity, and compassion
- To give the things you’d love to get, even if you’re not getting them – like empathy, respect, or kindness
- To speak about what you’re “fighting for” fundamentally – equality, humanity, safety, dignity – rather than who you’re fighting against
Many people have said to me “If I communicate this way to another person they’ll think I’m agreeing with them. I’ll be giving up on my own honesty, integrity, and authenticity – pretending to condone choices that are unacceptable to me.”
I don’t find this to be true though, if I speak clearly. Empathy is not agreement, it is not condoning. For example, seeking to “get” what leads people to genocide does not make you genocidal. The goal is not to pretend to agree in order to avoid tension; the goal is to speak and listen “from the heart”, whatever that means for you. For me it certainly means aiming for connection and kindness. It also means seeing the deepest human motivations under the actions I don’t condone. It equally means courage, and honesty, even when it’s scary. And it can mean vulnerability. One piece of firsthand experience can sometimes bridge the divide “I can’t pretend to fully understand everything that’s happening or know where we’re headed, but I witnessed something the other day that broke my heart and made me afraid for all of us. Are you open to hearing what I saw?” In workshops I have people literally put their hand on their heart during role-plays, and many report that this physical action helps them to communicate from the heart.
Let’s put it all together and get a feel for how it sounds…
- Get self-connected
- Know where you can get support
- Listen with the intention of really “getting” the other person, not with a view to destroying their logic. Keep inquiring and you’ll find their basic needs are needs you share, although you have different ideas about how to meet them.
- Ask questions about their logic and what they foresee happening if things go the way they want? Who’s going to benefit? How are they going to benefit? Who’s going to get pushed aside? How do they feel about that? You might learn something, or they might realize the places where they’ve not really thought things through, whether they’re willing to admit it or not.
- Mirror back what you’re hearing to check that you’re really getting it…”OK, so what you’re saying is….? Am I getting it?”
- When you respond, speak “from the heart,” whatever that means for you, and keep referencing their needs as equally important as yours. I’m talking here, once again, about the fundamental, universal human needs underneath the beliefs, opinions, and actions. Safety, respect, dignity, health, self-worth… and so on.
- Share what you’ve observed (read, heard, seen) that has led to your opinions, beliefs, judgments, assumptions, etc. Ask them what they’ve observed that leads to theirs. Notice how often the answer, for both of you, is “my trusted media outlets told me.”
- Be clear what you want from the other person when you speak. Perhaps you’d love them to simply “see the light” and agree with you – but, failing that, what do you want to hear back from them in response to what you just said?
- Keep breathing. Keep self-connecting. Keep reminding yourself of your deeper intentions. Remember – they’re actually trying to tell you about their deepest human feelings and needs, no matter how they speak, act or vote.
- Notice if you’re putting a demand on the other person to concede, to agree, to tell you you’re right. Much more important for you to address them as valuable human beings than that you get their agreement. Your compassion and integrity will stay with them much more deeply and have a more powerful effect than your razor sharp debating skills.
- Finally, notice if the intention “I will win” starts to creep back in. It’s unlikely to serve you in the way you’d like.
Here are few examples to play with. Compare these different things you could say in response to something the other person just said:
When you’re tempted to say:
“That’s such an ignorant way to look at things!”
…consider saying instead –
“You know I’m getting pretty worked up hearing what you just said, but I do actually want to understand what leads you to think about it the way you do. I’m just going to take a breath so I can listen more, ok?”
When you’re tempted to say:
“You’ve just been brainwashed by your news sources.”
…consider saying instead –
“I trust my news sources as much as you trust yours, but I’m aware they’re saying very different things. I see that it makes things difficult for us to discuss things because we’re working from very different information.” [then simply pause, to see how they respond next]
When you’re tempted to respond to a politician you favor being called a liar with:
“A liar you say? Well at least I didn’t vote for someone who’s a liar and a criminal.”
…consider saying instead –
“When you call my candidate a liar I hear that as a statement of how much you want a president and a government you can trust, and that you simply don’t trust the people I vote for. I’m with you on the importance of trust, but I have the same issue, that I don’t trust the politicians you vote for.” [then simply pause, to see how they respond next]
When tempted to hit back to protect populations you hear being dismissed or denigrated with:
“I can’t believe what a total bigot you’ve become. I don’t even want to be around you!”
…consider saying instead –
“I have friends, neighbors and co-workers in the population you’re talking about. When harm is caused to those people through reduction of their rights or violent acts against them, I will also suffer. I want to stand up for your rights, and I want to stand up for their rights equally. I’m working hard to understand how I can do both. I wonder what it’s like for you to hear me say this…”
These conversational snippets might not be exactly how you’d do it, and you might be thinking, “Yes, that’s fine, but what if they then say X?” And the answer is the same each time…breathe, connect to what’s going on inside, remind yourself of your intention behind having this conversation, listen with curiosity, speak from the heart. Find a way to take a break if you’re not able to stay in integrity with your intentions. Grab your phone, reread this post, text a friend!
A last comment from innumerable participants in workshops I’ve led over the years: “This way of communicating is so much harder and slower than the other way.” I say… You’re learning a new language, it may be hard in the sense as not coming as easily as your native language. The language we’ve been raised with – judgment, blame, criticism, demands, point-scoring, winning, threats, escalation, acceleration – is hard in other ways though. I don’t need to list those ways. And as for my suggested way being slower….Yes! Speaking fast is one of the least efficient things you can do when there’s tension and conflict. Speaking from the heart, from a state of self-connection is slower and more efficient.
I’m thankful to you for reading this article and attempting to close the divide. I’m also thankful for the many acts of courage, generosity and human connection that happen every day, no matter the political climate.
~ Newt Bailey, Founder of Communication Dojo