How to Talk Politics With Your Family

Multi-generational family sitting around a dinner table

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If you're like most people, you go into family gatherings with mixed feelings. On the one hand, you're excited about seeing everyone. But on the other hand, if you're with them long enough, differences may rear their ugly heads and create hard feelings. One topic that seems to rile people more than most is politics.

While all members of some families enjoy identical political views, this is not the norm. Most of the time, if you look closely at any family, you’ll see a wide range of political opinions—and many of the people are passionate about what they believe. Before you decide whether to avoid or discuss politics with family members, figure out what your tolerance level is for a lively—or heated—discussion.

There is a case to be made for both avoiding and having political conversations when the family gets together. Before you engage in one of these talks, decide what you hope to accomplish—whether you want to change someone’s mind, enjoy a lively debate, or find out why the other people feel the way they do. If you know the only outcome is family drama, don't even bring it up.

Avoid the Topic

Political discussions can bring out the most interesting points as well as the worst in people, making it difficult to be nice to the opposing side. As challenging as it can be if you know that the slightest mention of your political views will cause the dragons to breathe fire, employ your speech filters and keep your thoughts to yourself.

It’s not worth upsetting Aunt Sally or Cousin Bob over who you’re planning to vote for in the next election. If someone else brings up something that has the probability of creating dissension, take the high road and change the subject. It might take a couple of tries before other family members get the point, but it’s worth it to keep harmony in the family.

How to steer the conversation away from politics:

  • “How about those Buccaneers?” or “Who do you think will win the Heisman Trophy this year?” Sometimes the mention of a person’s favorite sports team will be all it takes to get off the topic of politics. Even if a sports debate about who has the best team pops up, it’s typically quite a bit milder than a heated political argument.
  • “May I get you another drink?” or “This meatloaf is delicious. Would you mind sharing your recipe?” This gives you a good excuse to separate yourself from the person you disagree with, and it makes you look like a considerate person with good manners.
  • “Maybe we shouldn’t talk about something that we disagree so strongly about. I wouldn’t want to upset Uncle Paul and Aunt Martha.” Sometimes it’s best to be direct and to the point. That way, there's no doubt about what your intentions are.

Discuss Politics

If you choose to discuss politics, brace yourself for some views that are contrary to your own. You may be enlightened, or you might become enraged. Whatever the case, politics can bring out the worst in some people. On the other hand, you may hear an angle that opens your eyes to something that you’ve never thought of.

There are some things you need to keep in mind before you engage in one of these discussions. Here are the guidelines for discussing politics with family members:

  • Set a time limit. This isn’t the time to monopolize the conversation. Setting a time limit for each person to speak will give all the people in the conversation time to state their case and force them to get straight to the point without monopolizing the conversation.
  • Listen. Let the other people say what is on their minds without interruption. Do your best to keep a straight face without grimacing, rolling your eyes, or doing anything else that’s rude.
  • State your opinion. When it’s your turn to tell your side of the debate, offer the main points of your opinion in a non-confrontational way.
  • Avoid name-calling. This is where things can get ugly. If you resort to slandering anyone—from the person you’re in the conversation with to the candidates you’re not voting for—you’ll evoke anger, and no one will listen to you. In fact, it might solidify the other person's opinion.
  • Don’t attack. When someone states their opinion, there is no reason to attack what they believe. Doing so will only alienate the other person and close off future opportunities to be heard. One way to open your side of the debate is to say something like, “You just made an excellent point. Here is how I view the issue.” That way, you're showing respect for the other person before you state your opinion.
  • Don’t judge. A political opinion that disagrees with yours doesn’t make the other person bad. It’s nothing more than a different point of view.
  • Set boundaries. There may be other areas of contention that you need to avoid discussing. If you know that bringing up a specific candidate will evoke flared nostrils and bulging eyes, don’t go there.

Whether or Not Your Family Engages in Political Talk

Only you and your family know your tolerance for having a political discussion, so decide what is best for the overall situation. You don’t want to leave and never speak to someone again, simply because you choose to mark a different candidate at the ballot box.

There should be a safe zone for anyone in the family who doesn’t want to be involved in a political discussion. Perhaps you can designate a specific room in the house a place where people can go if they don't like whatever the rest of the family discusses. For example, it might be the kitchen, where you can enjoy sharing recipes or talk about favorite restaurants. If the weather is nice, you can go outdoors and enjoy a bit of fresh air.

There are some situations when you need to avoid potentially contentious discussion. You don't want to get into a heated debate with your in-laws, especially if you're new to the family. It’s also a good idea to avoid political talk at the dinner table to keep from having digestive issues.

Remember that there is a very good chance that everyone will come away from the political discussion with the same beliefs they went in with. It’s difficult to change someone’s mind in one conversation. However, if you show respect for each other and pay attention to why they believe the way they do, you’ll have a better understanding of how they came to their viewpoint.