Family Conflict: How to Navigate Political Conversations
A common piece of advice for family gatherings is simply to say, “no politics.” Bringing up hot-button issues at a party can cause emotional turmoil when people have different deeply held stances. Many people believe that avoiding these conversations keeps the peace.
But for those in marginalized and underrepresented groups, avoiding politics is often not an option because these “political” issues affect their everyday lives. Many within the civil and human rights arenas have argued that claiming neutrality is a privilege and getting to choose whether to talk about politics is a luxury.
As communities around the nation work to confront racism, police brutality and the racial and ethnic health disparities underscored by COVID-19, more friends and families are being forced to engage in discussions that challenge their personal and political beliefs and require them to reflect on how their “politics” impact the lives of others.
Approaching these conversations with discernment that acknowledges existing family dynamics and your personal sense of self and safety is important. Below, find common questions about engaging in politics with family members in a healthy, respectful way, including how to end a discussion that becomes disrespectful or too damaging to continue. While this experience will be different for families with different personal histories and cultural backgrounds, the advice below can offer a starting point for productive conversations.
How Are Family Relationships Unique?
Family relationships differ from friendships in one essential respect: people cannot choose their family of origin. In friendships, people gravitate toward those with similar values and views, according to Karl Pillemer, PhD, author of the forthcoming book Faultlines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them.
“It’s a principle of like attracts like, and [we] tend to feel closer to people who share our basic values,” said Pillemer. “That fact is also true in families.”
However, if two people in a friendship develop different views, they generally are not under an obligation to maintain the relationship. Separating from a family can be much more complicated, awkward and painful.
“But in general, you are with your family members, so you may be stuck with these people,” said Pillemer. You may also have a history of shared positive memories that makes cleanly exiting the relationship hard.
Vickey Maclin, MA, PsyD, counsels adolescents struggling with this dynamic and often reminds clients of the deep, underlying concern that exists in many—though not all—families.
“They care deeply for you, and for some kids, that’s something to buy into,” said Maclin. “But as is typical of adolescents, they just think their parents are idiots.”
This push-and-pull dynamic of both loving and frustrating each other can apply to family members of all ages, further complicating discussions in the political arena.
How Are Political Identities Formed?
Many people believe their upbringing and lived experiences solely influence their political beliefs. However, these factors only partially explain our political identities, says John Hibbing, MA, PhD, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. In his research, Hibbing explores the psychological differences between conservative and liberal Americans.
“We have this sense that those views that our parents have passed along are supplemented by those, you know, from a clergy member or a trusted relative, a close friend. But we sort those through own our view of the world,” he said on the NPR podcast “Hidden Brain” in an episode about the psychology of political identities.
According to Hibbing, conservatives tend to prefer things that convey comfort and predictability—meat and potatoes on the table, organized workspaces and poetry that rhymes. Liberals, on the other hand, appear more willing to experiment. His past research indicates that liberal Americans tend to prefer food from different cultures, have less tidy living spaces, and feel more comfortable with free verse poetry.
“The point of this research isn’t to stereotype liberals and conservatives but to show that our political choices flow from deeply ingrained psychological differences,” said Shankar Vedantam, host of “Hidden Brain.”
Therefore, interacting with relatives who hold an opposing view may be as much a matter of biology as upbringing and environment.
The point of this research isn’t to stereotype liberals and conservatives but to show that our political choices flow from deeply ingrained psychological differences.
Still, Maclin affirms that culture and the family system do shape political views.
“My personal navigation with families around generational and intergenerational issues really has a lot to do with the sensitivity of the culture of the people that I’m working with,” she said.
Having a holistic view of the reasons behind people’s perspectives is helpful to bear in mind before entering politically charged situations.
How Can I Prepare to Engage in a Healthy Way?
Maclin advises clients preparing for family gatherings to reflect on their own values and how they relate to those of their family members.
- Two to five years down the road, how do you see yourself living your life?
- What are important things you want as part of your life? What are not?
- What does it look like to respect your family where they are while holding to your own values and beliefs?
Reflecting on these can help build your sense of self, so that a relative’s disagreement will be less devastating to you.
“The ideal way to approach it is to have this strong and stable sense of self that allows you to express your views without becoming infuriated or disappointed if others don’t agree with them,” said Pillemer.
How Should I Respond to Political Conversations?
Have a strategy for responding to political conversations at family gatherings and other events. While these topics are important, keep in mind that some relatives may not be ready for open, respectful dialogue. Use discretion in deciding which conversations to focus on.
Ask yourself if dialogue with a family member is likely to change their opinion. Would the debate be enjoyable, safe and edifying? If so, Pillemer advises following the same guidelines of respectful dialogue as in any conversation. Ask if the person is interested in your opinion, talk about the reasons behind your feelings, and share heartfelt stories.
However, if pursuing this particular conversation will only lead to further conflict and loss of connection, reconsider. Reply with, “I do not share your opinion, but I prefer not to discuss politics at family gatherings,” or something similar. Your energy may be better spent continuing the discussion with other family members or in other spaces.
What If Their View Is Truly Abhorrent?
Standing up to relatives who express views that deny the dignity of others can be intimidating—but may also be vital.
“If someone is routinely expressing white supremacist views, for example, it may not be possible to continue the relationship if the views are so offensive,” said Pillemer.
A mental health professional can offer support in evaluating the relationship and taking healthy next steps. Depending on your sense of safety in the environment, “standing up” can take various forms. You might counter the individual’s views in the moment, or you could write a personal note later (not a public post on social media).
How Can I End a Conversation?
If a conversation becomes overly heated or harmful, politely but firmly decline to continue. You could say, “I just don’t want to be engaged in these kinds of conversations because it doesn’t get us anywhere.”
If someone continues to press the issue, do not engage. If you are asked for your political opinion, you could explain that you do not think your perspective would be valued or accepted.
If you know your family members will “look at you cross-eyed and think you’re crazy” for expressing your views, said Maclin, try telling them so.
Sarah Stewart Holland and Beth A. Silvers, co-hosts of the podcast “Pantsuit Politics,” suggest trying, “Thank you for talking to me about this. I have reached the point where I’m not up for any more today. I would love to do this again.”
What Can I Do After a Conversation?
Consider the factors that have shaped other family members’ political identities.
Ask yourself where their beliefs may have originated and why they express them over and over. Maclin asks clients, “Is there some place where you can develop a sense of compassion for them, for who they are, for how they have given and invested in your life and for how they feel about you?”
Reflect on why the family member’s disagreement bothers you personally, beyond political or moral reasons.
According to Pillemer, it could be a form of identity threat to you if someone you respect and admire begins espousing offensive or opposing views. A counselor or therapist can be a helpful sounding board in this process.
Work on accepting that the other person is likely not going to change, especially if the argument has become heated.
“We [usually] aren't talking about a meaningful, reasonable exchange of ideas. We’re talking about people with extremely hard positions yelling about it,” said Pillemer.
Recognize that people don’t change their minds through argument—but do not be discouraged.
“We don’t ever argue somebody into our way of thinking,” said Maclin. Be especially wary of political conversations on social media platforms. “It’s just not a likely venue where anyone’s ever going to change their mind,” said Pillemer. Speaking out against views that dehumanize or degrade others is still progress, even if the other person does not change their mind.
Is There Hope for the Long Term?
Speaking about white allyship on the podcast “Pantsuit Politics,” Dr. David Campt highlights how engaging in conversations with relatives can be part of long-term anti-racism work.
“On the one hand, we need a certain sense of urgency. On the other hand, we need to have a long-run point of view,” he said. “So, that means if you have a super racist Uncle Tony, and you have more of a kind-of racist Aunt Edna, as you try to learn these techniques you might first focus on Edna before you move to Tony—because you need to practice, and it’s a lifelong thing anyway. You’ll get around to Tony.”
There is a difference between peaceful discourse and argument, and it is possible to have civil discussions about different opinions in a productive, informative way. However, when things become heated, it may be best to calmly shut things down. Again, Maclin cautions that arguing rarely, if ever, changes minds.
“Really, that has to come from within a person,” she said. “But if people are willing to sit down and listen, engage in, and hear from another’s perspective, then I think movement can happen toward change.”
There is a difference between peaceful discourse and argument, and it is possible to have civil discussions about different opinions in a productive, informative way.
What If I Am Still Dissatisfied?
While avoiding and redirecting an unproductive conversation can feel like giving up, consider focusing your energy to create change elsewhere. These efforts can help shape politics for generations to come.
Do you have a professional interest in working with families to navigate challenging conversations? Learn more about what a master’s in marriage and family therapy can offer.