How To Talk Politics Without Wrecking Relationships

Listen to this episode

S1: You know, the original idea for this episode was that you were going to come on with your parents. Yeah. And you brought up that idea with them, right? I did. How did they react? Not great.

S2: Welcome to How to. I’m Charles Duhigg.

S3: Thanksgiving is still a month away, but some of us are already dreading the conversations we’re going to have to have around the dinner table about politics, our country is divided, but so are a huge number of American families, Trump versus Bidart, Fox versus MSNBC. What do you do when the people you love are the same people you cannot stand discussing current events with? And as we head into the final stages of this election, it could feel like there’s no safe topics anymore, like every casual conversation could veer at any moment into dangerous political territory.

Advertisement

S4: My mom said that Jesus himself would have to come down and stand in front of her for her to vote for Biden.

S1: That’s a pretty tall bar.

S5: Yeah, I haven’t heard of him making any house calls recently, so I think I know how they’re voting.

S1: This is Shannon from North Carolina. She’s a dog trainer and a mom of two kids and now, in many ways, the black sheep of her family.

S6: I grew up in a very conservative household, and I was taught that there were those who are Republican and then those who were wrong. And once I got married to a man who has very different ideologies than I was raised with, I started changing and I was met with a lot of resentment and discouragement. And slowly this rift has started to develop. Tell me a little bit about your parents. They are very, very intelligent. They’re very passionate. You know, they’re good people. They’re funny and they’re caring. And my mom, she has been volunteering with the Republican Party and her in her hometown for 20 years now, probably, and they would rather just, you know, sweep things under the rug instead of potentially having a disagreement about anything.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: She Shannon, grew up in what is today, of course, the battleground state of Pennsylvania, which is where her parents still live.

S5: I grew up in an evangelical Christian kind of household. And a lot of those traditional Christian philosophies of, you know, marriage was forever. And between a man and a woman, all of these things and I remember in middle school and high school, I would get into my feuds with my classmates over these things because I just believe so passionately that there was only one way to think about these things. And I refused to even consider the other side.

S7: But now, from her parents point of view, Shannon’s on that other side and it’s devastated their relationship.

Advertisement

S3: Every time they talk, they either fight about politics or or there’s this awkward iciness. It’s gotten so bad, in fact, that Shannon only talks to her parents really about once a month or so. Now, does it make you sad not to be talking to them?

S4: Honestly, it makes me sad when I see other people who have these wonderful relationships with the parents where they can talk about all of these these issues. Either they agree with them or they can talk about things that they disagree about, but they can go on with their lives and it just doesn’t feel like we’re there anymore.

S1: On today’s show, how to Disagree Politically Without Blowing Up Your Family, a bipartisan survival guide not just for these holidays, but for the rest of our lives. Stay with us.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S8: And here we go. This is a Fox News election alert. Pennsylvania goes to Donald Trump.

S1: Donald Trump is the president of the United States back in 2016, after Donald Trump’s surprising victory over Hillary Clinton. Bill Doherty’s phone rang.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S9: I got a call from a colleague of mine in New York City who had been talking to another colleague of ours in southwest Ohio and New York City in southwest Ohio voted very differently and the country was pretty divided. And they decided to get 10 Trump voters and 10 Clinton voters together for 13 hours over a weekend and December 2016. And I said, that’s pretty brave. What were you thinking of doing with them? And they said they didn’t know, but they thought I could figure out what to do with them.

Advertisement

S3: The reason they called Bill is because he’s a professor at the University of Minnesota who specializes in healing broken relationships. So to help these Trump voters and Clinton voters talk to each other. Bill came up with a workshop format that was based on the marriage therapy he had been doing for years.

S10: I’ll give you an example. It’s called a fishbowl, where one group is sitting in the middle and chairs with a facilitator and the other group is sitting in the outside. The group on the outside is just there to listen, to try to understand the group in the middle and the two questions we ask. The first is why you’re your size, values and policies good for the country. And then the second question is, what are your reservations or concerns about your own side? And that’s the humility question. Then the group and the outer circle comes into the corner and they switch. And then afterwards, the question on the table. The two part question is, what did you learn about how the other side sees themselves? And did you see anything in common?

Advertisement

S3: That first workshop was a huge success. The voters all felt like they learned something about themselves and the other people they were listening to. And so Bill and his colleagues, they decided to start doing these workshops across the country to try and fight the polarization they saw emerging. They created a nonprofit called Braver Angels, which now has members in all 50 states.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S9: Well, the big fancy, all the big vision is to depolarize America, to bring a and blues together and not necessarily to all become Purple’s, but to treat each other as human beings and to see if we can run this country better.

S1: So it sounds like you’re the perfect person to help Shannon, because because the goal of your group is not for one side to change the other side’s mind or even even to figure out that like they can agree with each other.

Advertisement

S11: Yeah, we talk about achieving disagreement. Achieving disagreement means you actually understand what you disagree about because you understand the other side on their own terms, how they see themselves.

S1: This is exactly what Shannon is looking for, because for her, this rift with her parents started when she left home for college and it became even more pronounced after Trump was elected. And she feels this real pressure to act after her husband lost his job because of the pandemic. For instance, Shannon took a second job herself delivering pizzas. And there was this one night that changed the way she thought about her own political activism.

S12: There was this duplex that I passed almost every single day, and there’s always a giant Confederate flag flying outside of it. And one day I delivered a pizza to the other side of that duplex, the one that didn’t have the flag. And it was it was a black family with, you know, three young kids. It just really got me thinking about how they lived their lives every single day, knowing that the people that they share a wall with proudly fly that that flag and they have to live under that shadow every single day that brought it home like this is in my my neighborhood. This is in my community. I have to engage in it and use my voice in any way I can.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: And part of how Shannon feels like she can use her voice is in talking with her parents.

S6: One night they were down for a visit and we were, you know, just drinking a little wine out on the porch. And my mom said, Do you like gay people just to spite us or do you actually think that that’s OK? And and it just was like, I want to love people. I want to be known for my love, and I want to show them what that looks like. And they kind of walked away from that being kind of on our the liberals got her.

S1: It sounds like a a kind of contentious and unpleasant conversation. How did you feel afterwards?

Advertisement

S6: I felt. Like, they didn’t care that I had spent all this time thinking and learning and trying to love and trying to be a better person, and it felt like they didn’t think that I had the intellectual capacity to make these decisions myself, that I had just been brainwashed into accepting this this ideology.

S1: And this is what’s hardest for Shannon. She feels like she and her parents can’t even hear each other, like they can’t talk about these things without each of them feeling like the other is nuts. And so I asked Bill, where should Shannon start if she wants to repair her relationship, but also try to engage with her parents about these issues that mean a lot to her personally.

Advertisement

S11: Yeah. So a question I’d ask you is, what values did they teach you that are still with you? What did they teach you that’s in there in your political views right now that’s consistent with what they taught you?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S13: Wow, that’s a really good question. I think hard work is is one of them putting in the time to support your family in the way that that you need to?

S14: And, man, not only.

S11: Well, let me suggest one, you you care passionately about the larger world and it being better and being somebody who helps a be better. When you talk about, you know, the needs and perspectives of people who have been marginalized in this country, you do that with passion and conviction and values that sound like you. Yes, that sounds very much like that’s you. And when I listen to you describe your parents, if I step back from the particulars of their views, OK, I hear people who are passionately engaged in the world and wanting to make it a better world. The ways to make the world better have diverged a lot. But I hear a common value. And I want to urge you to think about the sort of subterranean level of commonality there, as opposed to only reflecting on the differences yet.

S15: And I honestly never heard my parents so proud of me as when I told them that I took that job delivering pizza. It just proved to them that I would do whatever it took. And they they said, you know, you could just sit back and get on welfare or whatever and get food stamps. But no, like, you’re going out there and you’re supporting your family and.

S11: Yeah, doing what you need to do, you know, rising to a crisis. So I’m not surprised they were proud.

S1: And this leads us to our first rule. Start by finding some commonality, which doesn’t mean searching for issues you agree on. Rather, it means finding values that you share. What did your parents teach you that you still live by? If you can start the conversation by voicing those values, the something you share with the person you’re talking to, it’ll make the rest of the conversation much easier because you have something to fall back on.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S16: Of course, that’s sometimes easier said than done. And so when we come back, Bill will help Shannon in all of us find the right words. We’ll be right back.

S3: If you like this episode, you should check out another episode called How to Get a Stubborn Parent to Listen. It’s not about politics, but rather about convincing an elderly parent to give up their car keys for their own safety. We’re joined by former Saturday Night Live cast member Jim Ruo, who has hilarious advice on how he handled his own father. You can find it in all of our episodes by subscribing for free to our podcast feed.

S1: We’re back with our expert, Bill Dougherty and our listener, Shannon, who’s trying to figure out how to talk with her parents about politics without it ruining their relationship. Bill says that after finding some common values, the next important thing is to try and see the world at least a little bit from your parents perspective.

S11: Most parents desperately want to feel approving of their kids. You know, I’m a I’m a parent. My kids are grown up and I’m a grandparent. And you’re a parent. And, boy, you do not, I’m sure, want to imagine a future in which you feel what the heck happened to my child. And so what I’d like to invite you to think about is the possibility that your evolution in a different direction has left them feeling troubled, maybe like the failed in some way.

S13: Yeah. I mean, I definitely think that there is a feeling of just disappointment. Like if I think something different, then I’m automatically being critical of the way that they’ve raised me and that I. I think that they weren’t good enough.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S11: Yeah, right. And so here would be a thought experiment. Imagine your young children grow up and at some point they marry somebody who is more conservative and someday they tell you they look back on the glory years when Donald Trump was president, when there was a chance for America to become great again. And now hold on. I know your blood pressure is going up now, but I’d like you to imagine that conversation and then to imagine how difficult it will be for you not to go. What what did I teach you? That would be difficult, I imagine, for you to have your your own children become deeply conservative and think that the gay movement was the beginning of the end for America as they believe it.

S13: Oh, man. This is definitely putting in perspective. It would feel like I had failed. That’s right.

S17: So if it’s possible for you to have empathy for how bothered and threatened they are as parents, as parents, right. Then it may make it easier for you to engage them differently.

S7: Here’s our next rule, instead of thinking of your parents as disapproving or judging, you try to think what this conversation feels like from their perspective. It may be when you say something that they don’t believe in, maybe it makes them feel like they’ve personally feels like they’re disappointed with themselves because they did such a bad job teaching you. Or maybe they fight with you, not because they think you’re wrong, but because they’re defensive that they messed up, or maybe they’re just simply tired of talking about this.

S15: I think with my parents in particular. And I think the thing that has been the most heartbreaking to me in all of this is that. It almost seems like at this point they don’t care even to, you know, try and win me back, it just seems like they’re sort of done with it.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S11: Yeah, yeah. Well, they’re burned out and you’re burned out. Yeah. So I’m going to tell you the kind of iron rule of a family communication about politics that we talk about and pray for angels. And that is do not try to change another family member. OK, and your parents, of course, are guilty of violating that rule. Yeah, all the time, which is very distressing to you for understandable reasons. The challenge then I suggest for you is to think about that rule for yourself, OK, in terms of how you communicate with them, because Jesus is probably not coming down to your mother to provide and that’s the only person who could change her. And so adult kids have little to no direct influence over their parents of, you know, core values, philosophy of life, political values, those sorts of things. And so it’s the starting point would be to give up any efforts to change their minds in any conversation.

S12: OK, I can do that.

S11: Well, I’ll tell you, you jump all over that one. What? Well, why are you enthusiastic about that idea?

S14: Because it feels like it gives me permission to not.

S13: I felt like I had all this pressure that, you know, I was learning all these new things about, you know, race and the environment and all of these things. And I felt like I was I had to be the ambassador to say, hey, look. Yeah. And that’s what Christians do, right? When we evangelize, we want to share that the most with the people that we love.

S14: So it’s almost like a big relief to be like, OK, that’s not my job.

S1: Well, that’s another thing you got from them. There’s an evangelistic part of you. OK, yeah. Around around different topics.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S18: It’s a big relief to let that go. Now we don’t have to take up from them. I mean, you can stand up for yourself and those sorts of things.

S17: But in terms of actively trying to enlighten them and be helpful to give it up, OK, this is our next rule and it’s probably the hardest one.

S7: Do not try to change your parents minds. Don’t try and change your kids minds. The stakes may feel so high right now. You might feel like, Shannon, that you have to do everything you can to convert even just one person. But here’s the thing. It’s not going to work. You aren’t going to change your family member’s mind. You’re just going to make everyone, including yourself, upset so you don’t have to feel bad about failing to win the conversation or or avoiding a sensitive topic, because even if you bring it up, it won’t work. And there are so many other ways away from your dinner table that you can try and do good in the world that have nothing to do with your family.

S11: There’s lots of ways to improve the world and change the world, to act on the world that are different from trying to change my loved ones with whom I have very little leverage. So what I’m saying is completely consistent with being an activist.

S1: I hear what you’re saying and that totally makes sense to me. I like I think I’ve heard about the times I tried to change my own parents and they have just been total miserable failures. But but then there are some times that that I want to tell my parents who I am not because I want to change them, but I am trying to share with them in an honest way who I am.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S17: Yeah, the key to healthy relationships between adult family members is to respect the right and the integrity of these others, to have their own views and their own part in the world, but to let them know where I am, how I see the world, but to not have a hook at the end of that that says, Don’t you get it?

S1: Yeah. Could we role play that a little bit? Like could we practice it? Oh, so Shannon, for a second, pretend like I’m your mom and and we’re on the phone together. OK, honey, you know, we haven’t talked in a month. Your father and I, we saw the debate the other night. Did you watch it?

S19: I saw snippets of it on Facebook and was very I was not surprised by how it went. Oh, and what do you mean by that? You know who. I don’t talk to her about stuff like that so hard. You know, just Trump can’t can’t denounce white supremacy. That’s that’s pretty bold. I, I don’t know. Here I am. I’m doing it. I don’t know how you can support that. Yeah. There is the hook me up.

S17: So why don’t you ask me the same question.

S1: OK, Bill, honey, you know we have. We talked a little while, yeah, I was watching the Fox News the other night, and they had the debate between the president and that other guy. Did you see that debate?

S17: Yeah, I saw some of it. You brought it up. So you probably have some things you want to tell me about it. What did you think?

S19: Oh, that’s good. Oh, my God, Bill, you are smooth, my friend.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: OK, so let’s say let’s say I say OK, and what about you, Bill, honey, what did you what did you think of it?

S17: Yeah, it was so, you know, Mom, you and I see this really differently. So you’re probably not going to be surprised that I had the exact opposite reaction. I just you know, for me, Trump is appalling. But I understand we don’t we don’t see eye to eye on the guy.

S1: I like that, yeah, because you never you never told me that I was wrong. Huh?

S17: You just told me what you what you think and does that work, what it does is it keeps escalation from occurring because I will not escalate. OK, so what I did there was to mention that we differ on this because that’s that’s the elephant in the room here, right? It’s not we’re not two strangers talking. We have longstanding differences on that. We both know in advance pretty much what the other person’s going to say. And so I began with I know you and I don’t see this the same way I got my I think it’s appalling in there surrounded by comments about the fact that we differ and I’m not trying to change you.

S18: Right. So let’s go back into your that actual situation where your mom said to you, are you interested in the gays just to get back at us? Yeah, that was a difficult moment, right? Yeah. So let me let me role play that you would be your mom and I’ll be you, OK?

S13: OK, so do you really care about the gays? Are you just thinking that to get to spite us?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S18: Yes, ma’am, what do you read coming from right now, what what are you saying? What do you what’s on your mind? Could you tell me?

S13: Well, I saw that you had posted that that thing on Facebook. And I mean, that’s not what we raised you to believe. So it’s just shocking to me that you think that’s OK.

S18: Yeah, OK. So I appreciate you telling me that straight up that what you’re bothered by is what you saw on Facebook and it makes you feel like what the who have you raised here? Right. So what I have just done, I’ve just done two things. One is that I took a question that was not really a question. The question was, this person wants to tell me something about what they think, OK? It’s not a question. If I answer the question, I’m just accepting the debate. Right. And so if it’s not a question, I say basically you go first, OK? And then what I did, I paraphrase back what you were saying when you said, I can’t believe I said, yeah, I hear you. That really bugged you. I get that. I get that. It really bugged you, period. Yeah, and so it’s like you don’t deserve to hear me say something that you’re going to attack, right. I want to know if you’re open to it.

S13: Wow, that’s an incredible tactic because it’s like do you do you want to talk about this or do you want to fight about this? Exactly.

S18: Very nicely summarized.

S20: And so here’s our next rule. Don’t bait your parents and don’t take the bait yourself. Instead, practice what Bill calls de-escalation, turning down the intensity of the conversation before it gets into dangerous territory. The important thing here is not to shut down or to get snippy, but to acknowledge your parents position and say that you feel differently. And then and this is only if you’re up for it, ask them. Would you also like to hear what I have to say?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: Is it possible that sometimes what you see is your parents picking a fight is not perhaps what they’re doing, but that that you as their daughter and I do the same thing with my parents, that the way you hear it is that you hear it more aggressive than they intend it to be, because it sounds like you think your parents are a little oversensitive. Is there a possibility that maybe you are, too?

S14: That’s your brave man, Charles. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

S13: I think there is a chance. I’m a little I’m a little sensitive, but but with good reason possibly.

S21: Yeah, I know. It sounds like with good reason. Yeah. Let’s imagine this scenario. Your calls say, hey mom, how’s your week been. And she were to say, I went to a great Trump rally. This is the big moment for you. OK, in the conversation. Yeah. And if you were working on what I’m talking about of of not trying to change or just accepting, that’s that’s like their religion. OK, then you could say and actually mean it. What was that like. OK, because you you could listen to what she said and just accept that that was a highlight of her week without challenging her in any way.

S6: You know, if it were if it were me that would just feel so like validating like, wow, she actually cares about something, right man?

S13: What if my parents just think that I don’t care about them? Mm. You know, I remember in elementary school I was handing out election literature and she’s she’s cried over the lost elections. She’s a volunteer, she doesn’t make a dime on this. And this is what she’s committed her life to. So I call my mom, say, hey, mom, how’s the election going?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S21: Mm hmm. How are you.

S14: How are you? How are you, Mom? Tell me about your week.

S21: Screw the election, OK? The election only matters in that conversation because it matters to your mom. Right. And she wants to talk about it, that’s all.

S1: And she’s probably gonna bring it up because it sounds like she’s volunteering their time. Yeah. And if she says, well, honey, thanks for asking. You know, I feel really good because I knocked on three hundred doors for Donald Trump this week.

S21: That’s a lot of doors. Yeah, that’s a lot of doors. How are you feeling? I worry about you sometimes that you know and I know you’re doing what you really want to do and you’re passionate about it. And I worry sometimes for you. Are you taking care of yourself?

S1: How do you think that would go, Shannon? How would you feel doing that and how do you think your mom would react?

S13: I’m. Honestly, I think I would flub it up the first couple times, because it’s hard, it’s hard to detach from it, but practice makes perfect, so just keep trying it. And it would be interesting.

S16: Here’s our final rule. It’s important to remember that for the people you love, there is so much more in their lives and in your life than politics. If we refocus on the people that we love and our histories together on these things that have nothing to do with who’s in the White House right now. Then we’re investing in relationships that will last much longer than any one presidency.

S1: Bill, do you have any any parting thoughts for folks who might be listening in and and struggling with this in similar situations?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S21: Oh, just be as open minded as Shannon.

S13: Well, thank you. Thank you so much. I’m very appreciative and I’m looking forward to having you over for Christmas dinner to facilitate this in person.

S14: All right. I got to run. I got to.

S22: Thank you to Shannon for being so open about this difficult topic with us and to Bill Doherty for all of his fantastic advice, if you want to learn more, including tactics for yourself, you should check out his site, Braver Angels Dog. Do you have a problem that seems like a can’t bridge the partisan divide or any other divide? If so, you should send us a note at how to add slate dotcom or leave us a voicemail at six four six four nine five four zero zero one. And we might have you on the show. And if you like our show, please leave us a rating and a review and tell a friend, even if you disagree with them politically, it helps us find more people and solve our problems. How to executive producer is Derek John, Rachel Allen and Rosemarie Bellson produce a show, and Merritt Jacob is our engineer. Our theme music is by Hannis Brown. June Thomas is senior managing producer and Alicia Montgomery is executive producer of Slate podcasts. Gabriel Roth is Slate’s editorial director of Audio. I’m Charles Duhigg. Thanks for listening.