From the US election to Brexit and COVID-19, current affairs have arguably never been more divisive. The Twitter threads are feverish, there’s scrapping in the WhatsApp groups and frankly let’s not go there with Facebook, but how do you handle significant differences in opinion and home politics when the conversational fires are raging in your living room?
It’s an issue that many of us are increasingly contending with given the fractious state of global affairs and no one is immune to 2020 familial turbulence. In the US, former advisor to President Trump, Kellyanne Conway was subject to takedowns on TikTok by her daughter Claudia Conway owing to their contrasting political views, with left-leaning Claudia even tweeting that she was at one point “officially pushing for emancipation”.
To add further tension at the family dinner table, Kellyanne’s husband and Claudia’s father is attorney and vocal anti-Trump critic George Conway, who was a founder member of The Lincoln Project, a conservative group whose mission statement is to “Defeat President Trump and Trumpism at the ballot box”. Both Kellyanne and George have recently left their roles at The White House and The Lincoln Project respectively, to “Devote more time to family matters” according to George.
Things are no less strained for political families over the pond either. In a recent interview with 35 Thousand, journalist and wife of Rt Hon Minister of the Cabinet Michael Gove Sarah Vine described “Not always seeing eye to eye with government policy” as one of the most significant professional challenges she’s faced during the coronavirus pandemic, not to mention the fact that “It occasionally makes things awkward at home”.
While most of us aren’t quite so directly embedded in the cut and thrust of day to day politics, heated disputes on the subject of everything from who to vote for to how to interpret COVID-19 restrictions can threaten to split up friendships and cause fault lines in family dynamics. A clash of views needn’t be insurmountable, however, and experts insist that exchanging and explaining opposing perspectives can in fact make relationships stronger and healthier. Just bear the following ‘minimal fallout’ advice in mind to keep things civil.
Start with the three ‘C’s
That’s compassion, common ground and curiosity. Dr Mara Klemich, Consulting Psychologist and Neuropsychologist, explains how to take on hot topics with extra TLC:
“The very best way to start any discussion is by looking for the good in the other person’s views. Even if there are only a few small things that you can agree on, begin the conversation from a position of agreement and emphasise the warmth, trust, and openness that your relationship is built on.”
Psychotherapist Dr Nicole Gehl agrees that exercising compassion will naturally lead to a more constructive conversation:
“Be respectful in your approach and gentle with your words. People generally respond far more positively to controversy when it’s presented in a gentle manner rather than with aggression. Speaking specifically, this means delivering your message without threats, attacks, judgment or disrespect.”
In short, don’t resort to trolling your friend or family member – greater mutual understanding and fulfilling dialogue is the aim, which is where curiosity comes in. Dr Mara highlights why asking questions is as important as getting your point across:
“Becoming more inquisitive is a brilliant way to live your life in general but it especially comes into its own when applied to relationships.
“When engaging in a tricky conversation, instead of first reeling off your viewpoints and evidence, simply ask considered questions such as ‘what’s your perspective about x?’ or ‘I’ve never thought about x like that – could you explain a little more?’. This can turn a potential argument into a much more reasonable discussion.”
Once you’ve demonstrated your curiosity, be sure to adhere to the next rule of peaceful conversation…
Be all ears
How often have you left a gap in conversation not simply to let another person speak but to plot your next whip smart retort? We’re all guilty of approaching an impassioned discussion as if it’s a verbal war to be won, but really listening to what is being said and expressed by the other party distinguishes a meaningful exchange from a ‘tit-for-tat’ tantrum. Just listen (intently) to Dr Mara on this one:
“Be willing to give the other person your undivided attention and they will be more willing to give theirs to you. Respect the other person and their perspective – after all, all we all have is a perspective, even though we tend to think that ours is the ‘right’ one. Listening actively and thoughtfully is vital.”
No matter how much you might disagree with what is being said, avoid interrupting the other person’s points – Dr Mara stresses that “All that this indicates is that you don’t care about them, only your own views”.
See opportunity, not catastrophe
Psychologist and certified therapist Dr Kalanit Ben-Ari underlines that your relationship isn’t doomed simply because you hold different beliefs on a particular issue – it could actually serve to spice things up:
“You likely wouldn’t spend much time with your partner, friend or family member if they weren’t a wonderful human being – the fact that you see a certain situation differently doesn’t take away from this.
“Try not to view a difference of opinion as a disaster and instead appreciate that it presents the opportunity for a really interesting discussion that will help you both to grow. Remember that you’re both equals, just with different perspectives and experiences of the world. Yourself and your friend or partner have a distinct history, upbringing and belief system that all contribute to influence your own unique opinions so see disagreements as reflective of your individual experiences rather than a personal attack.”
Retaining a sense of humour also takes the sting out of potentially inflammatory exchanges, but Dr Mara confirms that, in this delicate scenario especially, sarcasm really is the lowest form of wit:
“Steer clear of sarcasm – it mocks someone’s personal beliefs and it’s a not so subtle form of attack hiding behind a thin veneer of humour. It’s very damaging to relationships.”
Speaking of getting personal…
Read the room
Keep a check on rising tensions and tempers, both your partners’ and your own. Dr Mara explains that it’s no bad thing to be passionate about the topic at hand (“you have a right to be!”), but don’t let passion descend into powerplay, point scoring or button-pushing.
If emotional intensity steps up by way of insults or raised voices, keep your wits about you and cool off. It’s easier said than done but Dr Mara has some de-escalation tips to put into action should things get tumultuous:
“Take a deep breath, pause, slow down the pace of your speech and adopt a less emotional tone of voice. Bring the discussion back to the facts and if it’s you who has flown off the handle or picked a fight, be sure to apologise. A simple, ‘I can get really invested in this, I don’t mean to get angry’ is a good way to express your own humility and offer an olive branch.”
Still seeing red?
If you’re stuck in conversational deadlock, Dr Mara advises prioritising your relationship over persuading your pal or partner:
“Be the bigger person and recognise that you aren’t going to change their mind, and that’s okay. Close the conversation by affirming that your partner’s perspective has given you a lot to think about and thank them for sharing their views, even if you didn’t reach an agreement or achieve the ‘desired’ outcome.”
Take some time to decompress and then heed Dr Nicole’s suggestion to “Reconnect with your similarities and pay attention to what’s good about the other person and your relationship.” It could be convening over a funny cat meme or making a meal you love – whatever makes you both tick, do that. It’s how you move forward that matters (and we hear that emancipation is quite the process).
If you enjoyed this article then you will LOVE to read Dr Mara Klemich on dealing with difficult emotions here