Happy Partisan Holidays

David Olsen, Ph.D, LCSW

Happy Partisan Holidays!!

Once again the holidays are upon us complete with decorating, office parties, religious traditions, shopping, and of course lots of food. As the holiday song goes, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year!” Well, sort of… in the midst of the festivities and family gatherings, the most divisive partisan political debates, that we’ve seen in a while, are playing out. With these debates comes the guarantee that your uncle, or father-in-law, or sibling will try to lure you into a debate when all you wanted to do was enjoy dinner free of politics. (Trust me - I have far too much experience with family members who see the world in ways opposite to my own views.) The art of listening and discussing can quickly go downhill as emotional debates escalate, ending with irritation and relational distance… not to mention indigestion.

The question of the season, then, is how do we stay centered and connected in the midst of this contentious political landscape, and enjoy both the holidays as well as  family and friends as we gather to celebrate? Read through the next four rules of engagement for skills to protect relationships and reduce indigestion… at least as it relates to stress!

#1 - Begin with the obvious fact that NO ONE is going to convert no matter how effective your argument. No one walks away from the holidays with a new political or religious perspective, no matter how brilliant, clever or logical you think your argument is!  Instead, your companions are walking away frustrated and/or irritated with those they were originally looking forward to spending time with. Jonathan Haight, in “The Righteous Mind: Why good people disagree about politics and religion,” presents a powerful, researched based argument.  He suggests that people make up their mind about what they believe very quickly and without considering all the options, data, or additional information that might challenge what they  believe. Once they know what they believe, they then look for data to support what they believe. (This is rather scary!) We watch Fox, or MSNBC, not to get new information, but to confirm what we already believe! In other words, we do not arrive at our opinions after careful exploration of all the options and data. Not exactly encouraging for democracy! All of this makes debating politics or religion with family a total waste of time and does not help promote deeper family connections.

#2 - In light of the reality that no one converts, try to practice curiosity and active listening. Since arguing is a waste of time, try to censor the sarcastic comment you want to make about what all ____ supporters believe, and attempt to be curious. Ask the other to help you understand more of how they arrived at their position, and what values their position represents. Sincerely ask questions, without arguing or attempting to challenge. Listen, don’t debate. Obviously this takes great discipline but, in the end, avoiding arguments and agitation is worth it especially if the goal is to connect on deeper levels. As a bonus, you might also be able to at least appreciate how the other arrived at their position.

#3 - Progressively reframe the discussion. The goal of the holidays is not debate, but connection with the people we love! In the midst of political or religious debates, slowly shift the discussion to topics that help build that connection. (What about those Giants might be a little abrupt!) Try to ask relational questions that build connections. Ask about their kids’ interests, their memories of bygone holidays, the ups and downs of their jobs, or (if you’re brave) their spiritual journey. Try to understand their story. Focus on commonalities and shared core values - like being a supportive family for each other. Bowen’s theory of differentiation would maintain that debating politics or religion is not differentiation but is simply reactivity. Differentiation is holding onto your reactivity, censoring your emotional response, and focusing on building relationships in the midst of difficult times. In the end, the holiday season is about connecting more deeply with the people we love, and being more grounded in our spiritual traditions. Political and religious debates move us in the opposite direction.

#4 - Overall, try to hold onto the concept that people come before principles. The goal of holiday gatherings is to connect and deepen relationships, not try to make converts.

Happy Holidays!