Like many folks, I get stressed when I think about trying to talk to my parents about the election–assuming they’d even be willing to have that conversation. I come from a typical Scandinavian Midwestern family, where a cardinal rule is that you never talk about politics or religion. (For my parents, who ran the only bar in our tiny Minnesota town, this was also the key to good business–you don’t want to risk saying anything that might upset your customers.)
I suspect my family and I disagree on a number of issues, and I don’t want to damage my relationship with them. But with the election looming, and very much on the minds of most Americans, I’ve been wishing my parents and I could have a serious conversation about our political perspectives and the issues that matter most to us.
At Getaway, we talk a lot about the importance of unplugging: to set healthier boundaries around work and time off, to relieve stress, and to engage more deeply with the people in our lives. There’s a reason every Getaway cabin comes stocked with a list of conversation starters for having meaningful conversations with partners, friends, or family members.
My desire to talk politics with my parents comes from this impulse: not to argue or even necessarily convert them to my perspective, but to develop a better understanding about what matters to each of us. I have my life experiences, and they have theirs. If we can figure out how to talk about all this, we have an opportunity to learn more about each other and deepen our bond.
This week, I’m stepping away from my Midwestern roots to encourage you to try this with me: Call up a person you love but disagree with politically, and have a real conversation about the issues on the ballot. It may not be easy, but here are some tips I’m keeping close at hand.
Manage your expectations. Most communication experts agree that a single conversation is unlikely to change anyone’s mind. “If the goal [of the conversation] is to change [your family’s] entire worldview to agree with yours, you’re probably going to end up with dysfunction,” family therapist Dr. Casey Gamboni told the Chicago Tribune. Instead of aiming to change hearts and minds, enter the discussion with the goal of learning more about what’s weighing on the hearts and minds of your loved ones.
Practice active listening. Remember that you’re having a dialogue, not a debate. “A debate is a closed process of persuading the other that you’re right,” psychologist Dr. Peter Coleman told The New York Times. “A dialogue is a process of discovery, a process of learning.” Focus your full attention on what the other person is saying, rather than thinking about what you want to say next. Ask questions for clarity, and repeat back what you hear to make sure you’re following. Keep in mind that your goal as a listener is to learn and understand, not just to respond. If you believe the other person is repeating information that isn’t true, resist the impulse to tell them they’re wrong. Instead, continue asking clarifying questions, including what their process is for staying informed, how they’ve arrived at their opinions, and whether the statements they’re making are supported by their own lived experience.
Focus on the local and personal. In our polarized media landscape, it’s easy to adopt a set of beliefs, biases, and fears based on what the talking heads tell us. Steer clear of sloganeering and instead focus on connecting political beliefs to personal experiences. Ask the other person what challenges they actively face in their day-to-day life. What worries keep them up at night? What are their goals and aspirations for themselves and their loved ones in the coming years? What changes have they witnessed in their work, community, and cultural life over the years, for better or worse? Then share your own personal experiences and daily concerns as a way to clarify how these influence your political perspective.
Focus on the process rather than the content. If the conversation starts to get heated, slow down to examine why each person is reacting the way they are. If you find yourself raising your voice, take a beat to check in with your emotional response. Can you name what you’re feeling and what caused it? Can you articulate that feeling to the other person? Remember that it’s okay to take a break or hit pause if you feel deadlocked.
Keep the conversation off social media. As tempting as it might be to get into a debate with a former classmate or distant relative on Facebook or Twitter, resist the urge. Researchers have found that people tend to become even more polarized when their positions are challenged on social media. If you want to have a substantive dialogue that leads to increased understanding, pick up the telephone or set up an in-person (socially distanced!) conversation.
Be kind to yourself and look out for your own needs. Ideally, this conversation will lead to greater understanding and compassion among everyone involved. It’s also possible that in the short term, it may cause discomfort, hurt, sadness, and anger. If you can’t find common ground, it’s okay to change the conversation to a safer, easier one– but it’s also fine if you need to take some time and space to process your feelings before you’re ready to re-engage on any subject. During a very stressful month in a very stressful year, it’s more than fair to set any boundaries you need to feel safe and supported.
Need an escape to nature right about now? Book your Getaway today.