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Political Divides Won’t Ruin the Holidays . . . If You Pack Accordingly

Category:constructive dialogue tips
Eliza O'Neil, Ed.M, Jake Fay, Ed.D|December 21, 2022

Going home for the holidays means potentially revisiting old arguments and tensions. Successfully navigating those dynamics and conversations requires preparation.

It’s the time of year when many of us travel home for the holidays. When it comes to preparing for your trip, a packing list is key. No one wants to get caught at the airport buying the computer charger you left behind, the toothbrush you couldn’t be bothered to grab on your way out the door, or the extra layer when you realize the forecast reads snow.

Going home for the holidays also means we are potentially revisiting old arguments and tensions, which can often lead to fraught differences of opinion around the dinner table. Successfully navigating those dynamics requires preparation too. If the midterm elections taught us anything, it’s that America is still deeply divided on key issues and fundamental values, such as gun ownership, racism, abortion, and the environment. This polarization isn’t particularly new news, but it’s undoubtedly deepening and negatively affecting relationships among family members.

Conversations don’t have to be painful. At their best, they have the potential to shift relationships and deepen understanding and connection. The Constructive Dialogue Institute (CDI) was founded in 2017 to help reduce animosity across those lines of difference in classrooms, workplaces, and communities and address challenges just like these.

In the spirit of the holiday season, we’ve drawn up a packing list to help you make your trips home a little more cheery and a little less uptight. Because the difference between a conversation that divides and one that can connect is what you bring to it… and what you leave behind.

So what should you leave at home?

  1. Any commitment to winning an argument or being right has NO place in your suitcase. Leave it at home. Our research shows that conversations go better when both sides back down from their commitments to persuading others that they are right. Does it feel good to win? Sure does! But does it help bridge the divides? It seems to widen them. So try shifting your goal for the conversation from winning to understanding. It’ll be a whole lot less stressful that way.
  2. You should also leave behind your facts and figures. It may seem strange, but we know that using facts to change minds rarely works and sometimes actually makes people hold even more staunchly to their original beliefs. Stories are a better bet when you’re looking to shift someone’s thinking.
  3. Old receipts and dirty laundry. No one wants to be judged based on a notion they held in 2005 when the highlight of your weekend was a trip to Blockbusters to check out new releases on Blu-Ray. If your entertainment technology has gotten an upgrade, your assumptions about family members you’ve known forever deserve one too. Try giving them the benefit of the doubt, and ask questions that aren’t laced with assumptions based on what you know about them from the past. You might learn something new.

Now that you know what you’re not bringing, let’s make a packing list. What should you bring with you for the visit?

  1. Curious questions. Figure out the values and life experiences that underlie people’s beliefs and political views. Even if you think you already know, ask anyway – you may be surprised what you can learn. The intention of your questions should be to understand, not to prove a point or find fault. Chances are, asking genuine questions might inspire others to reciprocate with you. Questions like:
    • What makes you say that?
    • Why is that important to you? What is at stake?
    • How do you know?
    • Why do you think that is?
    • Say more about that.
  2. Acknowledgment of others’ emotions. The simple act of acknowledging what someone else is feeling or expressing can create the possibility to connect with that person. Remember, acknowledging someone else’s experience does not mean that you have to agree with their stance.
  3. Your story. The most important thing you can bring to the table is yourself. The good news is that speaking from your own experience is more likely to trigger empathy in your listener and bring you closer to understanding each other. You’re the only one with your particular set of experiences and beliefs –so share where you’re coming from and invite your loved ones to do the same. In many cases, your willingness to share and be present with one another is half the battle.
  4. Finally, if you happen to have some space in your carry-on, bring feeling words. Being vulnerable can make a world of difference in navigating those thorny topics that tend to make people feel further apart. Try talking about how the conversation or issue makes you feel rather than judging or discounting another person for their beliefs.

What if you don’t have what you need? Step out and come back better equipped.

First, stay calm. Conflict is a normal part of engaging across lines of difference. Take a break, run to the store, or get some air until you’re ready to engage again, or decide that you’re not ready to have this conversation at all. All of that is perfectly okay.

It helps to stay in touch with the purpose of the interaction to begin with. Holidays, after all, are about connecting with loved ones and reflecting on a year’s past in good company. Consider: Are you more interested in convincing your uncle that his views are a disaster and the way he votes is ruining democracy, or are you open to learning how he came to believe what he does? If it’s the first one, maybe dialogue isn’t right for this particular conversation. We’ve found that intention doesn’t often move the needle on people’s beliefs. But if it’s the second one, tell him why you care to talk in the first place: because you’re curious and hope to learn something new — and hope that by doing so, you may encourage him to approach the conversation similarly.

Looking for more tools for navigating holidays back home? Try our Conversation Simulator to tailor your approach to your exact family conundrum.

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