How do you not make talking politics a landmine at Christmas?

Nothing wrecks a good Christmas get-together like talking politics. And let’s face it–far too many have such emotional views that talking rationally gets really difficult. You don’t want to drive a wedge between family at Christmas, and you just want to enjoy everybody, but even if you want to steer clear of politics, often other people don’t. So what do you do?

I asked one of my assistants, Joanna, to compile a list of good Christmas posts of the past recently, and while doing that she saw how many were about difficult Christmas dinners. It made her think of politics, and she asked if she could write this. I told her, Sure! And her advice is great. I’m going to take it myself.

Here’s Joanna:

I was recently reviewing Sheila’s Christmas posts, and I was especially interested in all of her pieces on family time during the holidays. I started musing on my own experience and I realized there was one topic that causes contention around my extended family table: politics.

I’m an American and both sides of my family are political mixed bags.

I have relatives who are the definition of coastal elites and I have an uncle who wore Donald Trump socks during the 2016 election.

And here’s the thing: I can talk politics with any of them. I don’t lie, I don’t argue, and I don’t let it get contentious. And I usually leave the conversation feeling encouraged that we have more in common than I’d thought… or I realize that our information is coming from alternate universes. None of my relatives resort to bullying when discussing politics, though. They believe strongly and some, I think, are quite disserved by the people whose opinions they parrot. But no one is vile about it. If your family cross the line from passionate about politics to manipulating you into voting the way they want you to… you’ve got every right to avoid the topic with a 10 foot pole.

Whatever you think of the current political climate, I think we can all agree that things are very neatly divided into camps and that political identity has become a major divider of people: a former NPR head called it the new “guess who’s coming to dinner.” That is, we so hate the members of the other party that we would be upset if our child came home dating one of them. That is not okay.

A climate of hatred and division can thrive if we don’t talk to people we love about hard things.

If we allow the media (on all sides) to monopolize the conversation, we will only become more polarized. Outrage works for them–it gets us bringing our eyeballs and our mental energy back to them again and again.

I also think that if we cut some topics off from discussion, we make it harder for us to talk about big, important topics like faith. If we show we can talk about contentious topics with grace, it becomes easier for us to talk about other controversial issues.

Okay, Joanna, how do you manage to talk politics with just about anyone?

1. I know what my goal is for the conversation

Sometimes I’m letting someone blow of steam with me so that they don’t go and talk to X or Y other relative about politics and blow the place up. Sometimes I’m trying to bond, to show someone that I’m safe to talk to. Sometimes I’m trying to change someone’s mind. Sometimes I’m trying to figure out why someone believes the way they believe just out of sheer curiosity. Sometimes I want to talk it out to see if my perspective is legit. It varies. But where I want to steer the conversation and how I judge my success depends on my goals. A quick gut check beforehand is important, it tells me how many risks I’ll take and how to steer the conversation.

2. I look for commonality

So, let’s take healthcare. It’s a big issue and it’s one I care about. There are lots of contentious parts of US healthcare policy, but the fact that the US spend way more as a %GDP on healthcare than any other country and has worse outcomes has never been a fact people are unhappy to fuss about with me. It’s an easy in. We can talk about policy changes to help get people out of the ER and to family doctors, homeless shelters, etc.

Another winner? The Colorado river is dry by the time it reaches Mexico. We can all agree that’s ridiculous. And then we talk about why – certain water hungry crops and lawns in the desert. Do we need lawns in the desert? If not – how should people be incentivized not to have a lawn?

Essentially my goal is this: find a topic that is tangential to the “rah-rah” lines used by EITHER side so that we can have a discussion on policy, not politics. Because really, the goal of our political system is to have good governance, not “our team” winning.

3. I don’t reveal who I voted for

I once had a multi-hour political discussion with a relative without revealing that I voted for the candidate they hated. I actually really enjoyed our discussion, and it was really helpful. I knew they really wanted to talk about politics and I knew I could have the discussion in a profitable way, while helping out the other members of my family who weren’t really keen to have the talk with them. Your vote is a secret ballot and it is your prerogative if you reveal how you voted.

4. I don’t lie, but I don’t correct people either

It’s pretty rare that I’ll not just nod along. Maybe that’s duplicitous, but I’ve found going around the side and using commonality usually works better than brute force fact checking. If an older relative says something racially insensitive, my saying “that was racist” may make me feel better, but it isn’t going to win any hearts. If, instead, I bring up the business a friend started alongside refugee women, I’m actually getting somewhere in building goodwill towards those who are different.

5. I try to talk one on one, not in a big group

I talked above about how I try to steer a conversation about politics toward common ground. That’s harder to do when there are more people talking for the simple reason that more participants means that there will be fewer opportunities for me to talk! I’ve mentioned my goal to find commonality and that’s also easier if I’m talking to one person. I know one aunt and uncle have kids in the military, so I may look for different topics with them than I would with other family members, for example. If I’m trying to do too many things at once, it could spin out of control and I won’t have the same ability to customize my talking points.

6. I tell my own stories

Personal experience is straight up hard to argue with. By telling my story, I help to show why I believe the way I do. My experience with wait times in the Canadian health care system would be an easy one to bring up if we were talking about healthcare issues, for example.

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7. I don’t talk about parties

My goal is to talk POLICY not POLITICS. The current climate makes your party of choice the equivalent of a sports team and the rah-rah cheering, while understandable, can get in the way. Also it’s easier to avoid reflex responses – either positive or negative – if you can keep party out of the discussion.

8. I’m careful with my jokes… but I still try to get a laugh

I might, occasionally, poke fun at a particularly ridiculous act by a political figure – and I’m pretty equal opportunity in my ribbing. But if I’m going to crack a joke, it will be about the person DOING something silly. I don’t bash them for their existence. Nancy Pelosi or Paul Ryan may do something funny, but they are not inherently a punchline. Because people of all political stripes do ridiculous things, it’s an easy way to build commonality with someone I’m talking to if we can laugh at so-and-so’s ridiculous antics.

9. I avoid culture war issues, especially head on

So we can all discuss the banality of whether and how to regulate front lawns in Las Vegas without impeding First Ammendment rights. We can talk through the balancing of priorities in drawing congressional districts and, I think, come to a profitable conclusion. But there are some issues I try really hard not to touch, and those are the culture-war issues. It’s just too hard to have a nuanced discussion on most of these issues. If I need to, though, I usually try to deflect from talking about, for example, gun policy directly, and I’ll reroute to a side issue. On guns, I’d bring up the fact that it’s ridiculous that the CDC can’t study gun deaths and how important it is because of the epidemic of men using guns to end their lives. I’d also, as I said above, share stories about how suicide and guns have affected my family.

10. I try to understand where my family is coming from

I have family members all over the political spectrum. We all agree we want a fair, free country where hard work is rewarded and a social safety net exists to help those in need. We all want our children’s children’s grandchildren to enjoy the national parks and to inherit a safer, healthier planet. We want good schools and libraries, for the mail to come on time and for our firefighters to be rewarded for the risks they take for us. Mostly, we disagree on how to allocate resources and the HOW behind those goals. And honestly, usually both sides have a good point. (Occasionally, that’s not the case, but usually there’s a good reason behind a policy, of you look hard enough). Trying to see through someone else’s perspective is a great way to build empathy, and it helps me to understand where I may have overlooked things in my own political opinions. Humility goes a long way.

Thank you, Joanna. That’s awesome! So now let’s talk: Do any of you relate to what Joanna’s written? Do you think any of these points could help you? Tell me in the comments!

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