I like being in the know with politics and the latest political snafu du jour. It’s a hobby of mine. It helps me unwind (believe it or not), helps me to see that there is a world out there greater than Netflix or the gossip in the group chat.

When I was growing up, political debates around the dinner table were fun. People were mostly on the same side with varying degrees of more left or right viewpoints, and we’d always find a way back to solving the issue of the day. So, it isn’t any surprise that I am into politics. However, that dynamic with family talks ended and it ended about 4 years ago.

Sadly, family political discussions at the dinner table have become more contentious, more personal. In order for a big argument not to ensue, one of us must go radio silent or leave the conversation. I miss those discussions. Sometimes I feel more like a political pariah or disease.

I take some solace in knowing that I am not alone in this conundrum. In recent years political discussions, especially among family and friends, are becoming increasingly more difficult. An easy way to get out of the discussion is to stay silent and pretend like the humongous dichotomy of opinions doesn’t exist. But, how does that affect our mental health? For me, as possibly the only member in my family who falls on the left side of the political spectrum, I can tell you it isn’t easy.  I would have said that I consume more than the average person when it comes to news but as I thought more about that, I’m not sure that’s even true these days. Whether we know it or not, we each either hear, see or read not only news but political opinion constantly. It is always in our faces. Whether it’s in the form of coronavirus updates, social media articles, ads, friend’s comments, the truth is, none of us can get away from political opinions all around us. It seems almost everything is politicized. Even the topic of believing doctors is now in question.

The question isn’t “is it possible to have these discussions with family or friends”, it is more about “how do we have these discussions with them?”. The reality is, we can’t avoid them. It comes up. It always does. So how do we handle it?

Well, there’s no one answer. From a mental health perspective, it’s more widely accepted that it is better to communicate effectively than to not communicate at all. It doesn’t mean it’s easy though! On the other hand, some family and friend dynamics are such that it truly IS better not to communicate about certain subjects. That said, as usual, before one embarks on a risky journey to political discussion or another with certain family members or friends, I recommend that you fully think through or discuss the topic with your therapist to explore possible outcomes of such an adventure. If you don’t have a counselor, consider it! Your therapist can help you navigate a number of difficult topics and will also help you reflect on the more intimate nuances of your family or friend dynamics and help you decide what is best for you.

Here are some tips to consider if you conclude this IS a healthy idea:

Stay focused, be curious, educate instead of lecture. “The meaning of a piece of communication lies in how it is received, not how it is intended.” Unknown.  State your beliefs but tread lightly. Understand you can’t change anyone unless they want to be changed. If you dig in and try to force your point, things can escalate quickly (believe me, I’ve tried this many times). Think about it, when is the last time you felt great when someone told you how to feel? A great way to execute this is to use “I feel” statements. (This is a good idea in any relationship by the way.) “I feel like I am not being heard right now” is more effective than “You never listen to me”.  When I counsel couples, one of the things I  encourage is for everyone to listen to hear, not to respond. To be heard is to be seen. Being truly heard and seen affirms that one exists and that they matter. We all deserve that. 

Stay light. When polarizing topics come up, our brains go into defensive mode because we naturally try to protect ourselves and those we love. We also relate the topics to past traumas or past triggers which may or may not be directly related to the current conversation. It is easy to go into auto-defense mode and jump to a tangential but related aspect of the argument when the conversation may not be going there. So, prepare yourself and stay light. Be aware that you may hear things that make you triggered or get mad. Here is a shortlist to some popular topics that I’d be willing to bet may get people started down the triggered trap: Trump, build the wall, socialism, systemic racism, all lives matter, defund the police. Be aware when these topics arise! Take a walk, a deep breath and self-validate that these topics are important to you and that remaining calm will only help your position. Lastly, remember that you are entitled to your private opinions and what is being triggered may not be directly related to the political hot button.  

Choose your battles wisely or be selective. Consider the importance of making your point. Many of us have family or friends who simply won’t be around forever. Staying calm and quiet and changing the subject is sometimes the best way to handle things. When it comes to topics such as racism and the fight against it, it is important that we are not silent. In this case, remember that Rome wasn’t built in a day. Plant seeds, one comment that gets people thinking can change the world in the long run. I have found that many times the greatest change in my life has come from small suggestions and memorable conversations. Also, just because one of your uncles sees politics differently, doesn’t mean that he isn’t the most fun uncle ever. He likely has many other qualities that you can appreciate. We all have one or more friends or family members who don’t agree with us on various things. It isn’t always necessary to break a relationship over one topic (unless of course it is necessary).

In today’s political climate, political views are tied closely with very emotional topics such as racial equality, economic injustice, human and civil rights, freedom of speech, etc. Unfortunately this has seemed to force individuals to choose a side on these topics. It seems unreal to have to take a side against human rights but hey, that’s where we are. So, it is important to stay focused on these conversations. By that I mean, try not to take flip comments personally. Remember that for whatever reason, people have had to make strange, line in the sand stances that cross way over into personal boundaries in order to subscribe to a belief. Remember, the conversation in which you may find yourself is an opportunity to educate, learn or just plant a seed. 

Ultimately, you have the right and the autonomy to form your own opinions. I will preach that all day long and I wholeheartedly believe it. I believe it for all people. I also like to trust that all people endeavor to be kind to one another. If you disagree, that is also your opinion and that matters too. However, there are times for ALL people when it is critical to learn something you may not have known before. Remember, the greatest gift as humans that we have is our ability to smile, to laugh, and to communicate in a multitude of ways. Now use it!