The El Arroyo sign last week said it all – “Pro Tip: Bring Up Politics This Thanksgiving To Save $$ On Xmas Gifts.”
A recent poll from the Pew Research Center shows that nearly 80 percent of Americans report having just a few or no friends who supported a presidential candidate other than the one they did – but family members are not chosen, and because adult experiences differ, political views can also be divergent.
So, if the pandemic has not put a wrench in your plans, you might break bread with family members who do not share your opinions about the recent election. Fear not, The Leader talked to three area therapists for tips on how to make the holidays a little less stressful.
“I think the best way to deal with Thanksgiving and differences in political stances is both really easy and really difficult,” said Barbie Atkinson, a licensed professional counselor and owner of Catalyst Counseling. “Just don’t do it. Win or lose, you were likely invested in the outcome. Thanksgiving and politics is not a recipe – pun intended – for meals to be enjoyed and relationships to be cherished.”
Added Elizabeth Cobb, also a licensed professional counselor: “It’s a completely legitimate request to go into the holiday with an agreement to stick to conversations in which there is alignment of values and opinions. Focus instead on friendship, food and folly.”
Houston Family Counseling’s Elizabeth Arredondo, another licensed professional counselor, has written a blog about the subject at https://houstonfamilycounseling.org/blog/. She said if you’ve made a commitment to steer clear of political topics during holiday visits, preparation is key.
“Think about safe topics and activities before you get together with family,” she said. “Shared positive experiences foster a sense of connection, and it’s easy to find things to enjoy together, no matter your political perspective. For example, family members can cook together whether they are in the same kitchen or connected virtually in separate kitchens. Sharing old family recipes is especially powerful, because it calls family members to reminisce about holidays past, creating a sentimental sense of shared culture.”
If you decide to wade into the waters of politics, Cobb said to remember the acronym GIVE. G is for “gentle” as in using appropriate language, avoiding a harsh tone, being courteous and maintaining a non-judgmental stance.
I is for “interested” as in when another person is talking, pay attention and be curious about why they think the way they do. If you really want to win points, be sure to look for the understandable parts and acknowledge it. Let the other person know when they have made a “good point” or when you have not thought of something from that perspective.
V is for “validate.” Cobb makes the point that validation is not the same thing as agreement, but rather the demonstration of understanding a person’s point of view, which can be offered verbally or non-verbally.
Finally, E is for “easy manner.” Smile, be friendly and employ humor, not sarcasm.
“Don’t forget who you’re talking to — your dad, your sister, your brother-in-law, your neighbor,” Cobb said. “They’re not faceless, nameless individuals.”
Cobb said you should also give up the idea that you are going to change anyone’s mind or help them see the light.
“Focus instead on having a healthy, high-functioning conversation with your people, whom hopefully you enjoy even if you don’t agree with their politics,” she said. “Be thoughtful about your kids, who might be onlookers or even participants in these conversations. You’re modeling how to engage in respectful discourse.”
If you need to pull your children aside afterward to clarify your family’s values and how they differ from what they might have heard, you can do that.
Arredondo adds that the addition of face masks and social distancing make expressions hard to read, which may cause any conversation to veer off course.
If things get out of hand, Atkinson recommends diaphragmatic breaths.
“When you take a deep breath, your body is sending a message to your nervous system to relax and calm down,” she said. “There are many techniques out there for breathing and I would encourage finding someone on YouTube that can teach you how to do it (to) practice before encountering the anxiety and conversation.”
Arredondo notes that conversations become unproductive when the participants’ tensions run too high as measured by a heart rate over 100 beats per minute. The experience is called “flooding.”
“Flooding leads to erratic conversation, which can lead to emotional disengagement and, eventually, dissolution of relationships,” she said. “When you feel your heart racing and breath coming quickly, know that you need to practice some quick self-soothing or even call a timeout and step away for the sake of the relationship.”
The good news is that this moment is temporary.
“The kinds of tension that all Americans are holding on to this year are unprecedented, and so not likely to be repeated,” Arredondo said. “It’s probable that next year, and even next month will bring some greater ease and peace. With that calm will come renewed social and emotional reserves that might allow for important political conversations that can build bridges in families and eventually foster healing in communities and even in our nation.”