Thanksgiving is this week, and since there’s no indication that we’ve all become enlightened since last year, it’s probably time to talk about how to navigate those awkward political conversations with your relatives. Here’s my quick guide to how to get along with your relatives:
First, you have to want to get along. Fighting takes two, but getting along only takes one. Ask yourself if you’re the person who instigates fights or if you are the person who accepts an invitation to fight, because each person is responsible for what ensues. No matter which one you are, it means that there is a part of you that wants to fight. Ask yourself why. Usually it comes down to a belief in your rightness, in the other person’s wrongness, and in the supposition that you have the ability and responsibility to change the other person’s mind.
Let’s look at that supposition a little closer. Do you actually have the ability to change people’s minds? Because if so, more power to you. But if your “convincing” style results in heated arguments, your track record isn’t very… convincing. People don’t like it when other people try to change their minds about something, and most of the communication techniques that show up in an angry debate (accusations, generalizations, name-calling, moral judgments) tend to just alienate people. Keep in mind that most of the problems facing humanity right now, which are the basis for the arguments that many of us are itching to have, are caused by people who feel alienated. So is this argument helping, or is it hurting? Keep in mind that the goodwill that you have with your relative might actually help you influence them in a positive way, but not if you destroy it by having an unconscious argument in this way.
But does this mean that you can’t talk about what you believe in? Issues like climate change, systemic oppression, and pandemic response measures are big and important. In fact, they are a matter of life and death on a large scale. You should never feel guilty for wanting to speak up about them. But we should always ask ourselves, “To what end?” Speaking up has the power to educate the ignorant, to inspire the fearful, and to comfort the marginalized if done skillfully. Part of that skill is knowing your audience, knowing yourself, and knowing your purpose in the moment. Is your purpose in the moment to educate, inspire, and comfort? Or is it to pwn someone you are feeling contempt and judgment towards? If it’s the latter, and you truly care about the ripple effects of your actions, consider the impact of sending more negativity into the space around you.
Okay, that’s all well and good, but what if you don’t start the argument? What if you’re doing your best to speak respectfully and authentically and the person you’re speaking to is crossing the line with their tone, word choice, or antagonistic body language? Remember when I said that getting along only takes one person? Now it’s time to set a boundary. Rather than counterattack, you can tell the other person that you’re willing to have a respectful dialogue, but only if they change how they are talking to you. Make sure to be specific about what it is in their communication style that you’re objecting to. Everyone knows that talking politics is a no-no at dinner, and if you don’t choose to engage, the conversation can’t continue. If their verbal abuse does continue, then you may need to enforce the boundary by taking space away or even leaving altogether. Getting along requires that you are committed to everyone’s well being, and that starts with your own. By taking space, you are practicing self-care, but you are also practicing care for the person abusing you, because harming others is one of the many ways in which we become alienated from our true selves.
I wish you a happy Thanksgiving. It is my true hope that by learning how to care for ourselves and those around us, we will become more effective at caring for the world at large. If you have any questions or concerns about how to use this guide, feel free to leave me a comment or send me a message. I’ll do my best to respond in a timely manner.
Nauser Bear is a licensed marriage and family therapist in California (LMFT#123099; licensed with the BBS as Nicholas Jon Reynolds) and a coach for HELPAs (Healers, Educators, Leaders, Parents, Activists & Artists) wanting to build a life of sustainable selfless service. To work with Nauser, send an email to nauserbeartherapy at gmail dot com, call (510) 394-5373, or schedule a free 20-minute consultation by clicking here.
Disclaimer: This blog and comments on it do not constitute medical or mental health advice. If you are in need of support and live in California, contact me to set up a consult to see if working together is a fit. Otherwise, seek mental health support in your area. If you are in danger of hurting yourself or someone else, please call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention hotline, which is available 24/7, at 800-273-8255.