Talking with Friends and Family about the Election



Newsletter #243 — June 9, 2024



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By Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess

Here in the United States, we are getting ever deeper into an election year where we are constantly being told (by those on both the left and the right) that this will be an "existential election" — one that will determine whether or not our democracy survives and whether we will lose most everything that we care about. We are also getting into the summertime family travel season — a season in which many of us are traveling to visit friends and family — some of whom  are likely disagree with our political views.  What to do?

Although we usually advocate reaching out to and engaging with others across the political divide, in this case, we think it is important to tread carefully and consider the reason for engaging before we decide whether to do that, or not.  Do we really want to learn what they think and why, or do we want to change their minds? The first might be possible if we engage carefully, though it still is not without danger; the second is much less likely to succeed. 

Given the deep feelings that so many people hold in today's hyper-polarized environment, such conversations can easily undermine and, perhaps, seriously damage some of our most important personal relationships. The deep-rooted nature of these tensions means that it is very easy for us to interpret conversations which pose even minor challenges to our political beliefs as personal attacks. These are also the kind of conversations that can quickly escalate into bitter and damaging confrontations — especially among family and friends, who we tend to think should be on their side. 

Also, given the large scale societal forces behind our differing opinions, it is very unlikely that such conversations would produce the kind of opinion change that we might seek.. We need to remember that political opinions are based on a lifetime of interpersonal interactions, as well as the the information (true and false) that we glean from the media. We are also being constantly reminded by subtle clues from those around us that we don't want to deviate too far from "the party line."  In this context, it is really hard to imagine any kind of short conversation that could somehow override such pressures and persuade people to make anything more than minor adjustments to their existing worldviews. 

Further complicating matters is the fact that today's political discourse (on both the left and right) is dominated by voices telling us why we should fear the other side and why we should do whatever it takes to prevent them from winning. We tend to spend much less time thinking critically about the things that our side stands for and whether there is any merit to the arguments of our critics. We just tend to assume that we are right and they are wrong. 

This approach to politics is also continually being reinforced by politicians seeking to mobilize the base of committed supporters and by our highly partisan media which tends to focus on providing politically defined market segments with the information that they want to hear — in order to build loyal and lucrative audiences. Not surprisingly, what people want to hear is that they are the good guys and that their political adversaries are to blame for everything that is going wrong 

This manner of thinking doesn't lend itself well to constructive conversations with family and friends. If we are to engage in such, at the least, we need to take great care to be open to hearing their criticisms of us, and their reasons for believing what they do. We must be just as open to being persuaded as we hope to persuade.

So, bottom line, we suggest that if you decide to engage in political a conversation with friends and family who don't share your political views, you should approach such conversations with caution, humility, and respect for differing opinions. This requires an ability to communicate clearly about sensitive issues in ways that anticipate and avoid possible misunderstandings.  Under the best of circumstances, this is something that is time-consuming and often painful.  And, in truth, few of us are very good at this. Not surprisingly, such conversations are often viewed as unwelcome intrusions into what would otherwise be a positive social interaction (e.g. holiday celebrations).

For this reason, we are usually inclined to honor the time-tested advice of avoiding talking about politics unless participants really seem to want to productively engage in such a conversation and are willing to give it the time and attention required. Otherwise, we think that the best thing to do is to honor the fact that, in a democracy, citizens really do (and should) have very different views — views that emerge from their unique life experiences. We should respect the diversity of opinion that results from these differences without impugning the integrity of those who hold differing views. 

We are talking about important relationships with those who are closest to us — people whom, in other contexts, are valued, respected, and a big and positive part of our lives. It would be foolish to damage such relationships simply because we have been ensnared by giant societal trends over which we have very little control. These relationships are what holds us together as a family and a community. In difficult times, they are the last things we want to lose.

Having said all this, there are cases where people do want to talk because they are in the process of forming an opinion and are actively looking for information and advice. This might, for example, involve a ballot measure on some unfamiliar issue or a difficult choice between equally desirable (or undesirable) candidates. While such conversations generally involve relatively minor worldview adjustments, they are also a critical part of the long, slow process through which everyone's political views evolve and we, as a society, learn. 

Beyond these interactions with close associates, there are also opportunities for people to seek out conversations with those with differing opinions (often as part of one of the various formal dialogue programs currently available). These are programs that usually involve strangers with whom there is no expectation of continuing relationships and they are typically facilitated by trained moderators who keep the conversation on topic and constructive. 

In both kinds of conversations, the goal should be respectful dialogue with an exchange of ideas and sometimes thoughts about what should be done (personally or in terms of policy)  based on those ideas.  The expectation should not be some kind of major political transformation, but rather a more modest effort to facilitate the evolution of interpersonal and political views.  Still, these conversations, when combined with accumulating information from other sources, can result in important refinements to individual worldviews and an incremental step toward a more positive social and political environment. 

So talking across difference can be useful both personally and socially.  But one should consider one's purpose for the conversation, the context, the amount of time available, and the conversational and conflict management skills of the people involved before deciding whether or not to engage.  And, if you do decide to have a political conversation, treat your conversation partners with the same care and respect that you would like to receive from them.

Lead Photo Credit:,_Epping,_Essex,_England_2.jpg; By: Acabashi; Permission:  Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International; Date Acquired: June 5, 2024

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