Politics & Family: Manage the Difficult Conversations During the Holidays

As fall transitions to winter, residents across the country and New York prepare for another holiday season.

For some, the smell of a Thanksgiving feast is right above the nose. It’s a season embedded with American traditions: family and friends join hands, watch football, converse about life, work, sports, and politics.

But how do you manage hot-topic issues at the dinner table? It’s a tough question and a reality for many during the holidays.

In this political climate, polarizing topics and opinions could lead to heated debate, but one local expert is urging people to remain respectful, if you so choose to discuss politics at the table.

Mental Health Counselor Lynne Shine said the general rule of thumb is to avoid conversations about politics and religion during the holidays, but having an open-mind during those conversations can help people guide the conversation.

Shine said the political disconnect has grown among people, which can take an emotional toll on people, especially with loved ones.

“It’s not about politics for a lot of people,” she said. “It’s about character.”

Navigating the conversation positively can avoid conflicts.

“When you can’t avoid it, remind people that look, ‘we love you.’ How about we remember that when we talk about [politics] and try to remember that at the end too,” Shine said.

Here are tips Shine said can help during political conversations:

  • Have a way out: set boundaries and limits and don’t be afraid to say when you are no longer comfortable with the conversation
  • Admit when you made a mistake or said something hurtful
  • Ask questions about why you feel a certain way. Everyone is fearful of something, and fears guide prejudices. Getting to the root of “why” can help navigate a healthier conversation.
  • Approach how something makes you feel, versus why you feel you’re right.

“The other part is remembering that you’re not going to change somebody’s mind,” Shine said. “We think we can because it’s somebody that we know so much, but you’re not. You’re not going to change their minds. So, try and understand where they are coming from, almost like you’re studying them…be curious instead, versus defensive.”

Shine said she has noticed a rise in political disconnect during the 2016 United States Presidential Election, which is supported by the mPew Research Center.

“For the first time in surveys dating to 1992, majorities in both parties express not just unfavorable but very unfavorable views of the mother party,” according to Pew. “And today, sizable shares of both Democrats and Republicans say the other party stirs feelings of not mjust frustration, but fear and anger.”

Additionally, more than half of Democrats (55%) say the Republican Party makes them “afraid” while Republicans share the same sentiment about Democrats at 49%, according to the study.

“Among those highly engaged in politics–those who say they vote regularly and either volunteer for or donate to campaigns– fully 70% of Democrats and 62% of Republicans say they are afraid of the other party,” according to the study.

For Shine, navigating those fears and anger during the holidays is a key component to promoting healthy dialogue.

“Right away being assertive enough to say this isn’t comfortable to me, I don’t want to talk about this, instead of believing you have to engage in everything,” Shine said. “So, get yourself out of the conversation…”

Political anxieties, especially around those we love the most, can be tricky to manage, but de-escalating a situation is possible, Shine said.