How To Talk Politics At The Holidays Without Ruining Everything
If you’ve been on social media since the election, you’ve probably seen a lot of people expressing their feelings. Regardless of how you feel about the results, a lot of us might find ourselves in difficult conversations over the next few weeks — especially as families gather together for the holidays.
We turned to David Domke for some help. He’s a professor at the University of Washington who studies the way we talk to each other about politics.
And before we go any further, let’s note: This is not just a story about how to survive Thanksgiving dinner with your liberal uncle or your conservative aunt. For that, there’s football. This is about actively listening to one another, in the hopes of developing a deeper understanding of why people have the views they do.
Below, we’ve summarized some of Domke’s points, but we encourage you to listen to the audio of this conversation.
Why should we listen to each other?
“If we’re going to really coexist together and be reconciled to one another — and really think about the fact that we have a nation in common here in the United States, then we really do need to listen, and to be affected by that listening.”
OK, how do we do that?
Domke says it’s important to be straightforward about things. Don’t make fun. Don’t mock. Just listen. He mentioned an exercise he conducts with students and community members.
“We take timers and give everybody three minutes. You get to talk and everybody else’s job is just to listen. Everybody has a job to do now. Instead of a conversation where I’m prepared to rebut what you were going to say, you say, ‘My job at this moment is to just listen.’”
Domke says that cuts the tension in the room, including for the speaker, who knows they have time to say what they want to say, without worrying about interruption.
That’s one example. The bottom line is to be patient, and listen.
“I have seen this over and over,” Domke said, “where people actually come out with a greater empathy for one another.”
This sounds really hard.
“It’s certainly hard if the anger and sadness that might be there for many people is prominent,” Domke said. “If those two things are prominent, then the reality is, yeah, you’re not ready to listen.”
But if you’re ready to move forward, Domke says you have to decide that it’s more important to listen than to just sit with your own perspective.
And, he says, this cuts both ways. A truism of politics is that today’s winner is almost certainly not guaranteed endless victory. The tables turn.
“So the issue isn’t dominance and victory, the issue is relationship and connection,” Domke said.
I heard some horrible things during the campaign — some of which are frightening or downright threatening to me. How do I listen to people talk about their views without normalizing things like racism, sexism and religious hostility?
Set the ground rules that everyone will have a chance to talk, and everyone will have a time to listen.
As for normalizing: “The reality is if you’re going to be a person who exists in this same world as me, I need to have some understanding why you’re saying what you’re going to say. That doesn’t mean I’m going to accept it, or will for any moment in time ever believe or agree with that,” Domke said. “But the reality is, I need to understand that.”
Not everyone has the luxury of feeling safe during such conversations. For many, there are ideas and rhetoric floating around that are personally threatening.
“There are many of us who are feeling rightfully scared and endangered,” Domke said. “I’m with you. Side by side with that has to be some way we can learn to listen and talk to each other. … It’s not an act of privilege to ask someone what they think. It’s part of the process by which we are better able to put forward our views of the world.”
OK, but seriously, why should I engage in these conversations?
Lots of people say they’re not talking about politics at the dinner table.
“That doesn’t move us, as a society, forward,” Domke said. “What I’m advocating is an attempt to build a better world. That approach is a go-along; live your life in the same way, and we will be, four years from now, at another election where we’ll be in the same place.”