The holidays are upon us. While there is plenty to be excited for, such as turkey (or Tofurkey), pumpkin pie, lighting the menorah, or a full Blue Spruce tree lined with brightly colored packages, one thing that many people may be dreading this holiday season is interacting with family without starting a war over politics. This has been a difficult year for politics, regardless of your political affiliation or opinions. Differences between people, rather than being celebrated, have grown wider with the pressures of politics, leading people to develop an "us" versus "them" mentality. Understandably, this has created some tension among families where people fall on opposite ends of the political spectrum.
This mentality is nothing new. Indeed, social psychologists have studied this for years. They refer to "ingroups" as any group that we belong to (e.g., gender, education status, political affiliation) and "outgroups" as any group that we do not belong to. This type of social categorization of people based on their commonalities makes sense - we have done this with everything since childhood. It's how we learned to identify shapes, colors, objects, etc. We may also be motivated to categorize people as a way to protect ourselves from unfamiliar or strange people. Regardless of why we do it, the consequence of categorizing people as part of our ingroup or outgroup is that it tends to exaggerate differences between groups and can lead us to form or reinforce stereotypes. For example, you might have heard thestereotype that "all democrats are bleeding hearts," or "republican's are stingy."
So, what can we do to bridge the gap between groups? We could take a cue from social psychology, in particular, a study by Sherif. In 1961, Sherif created a fake summer camp in Robbers Cave State Park in Oklahoma to study competitiveness and cooperation. He took a group of 11 and 12 year old boys and divided them into two cabins.He arrangedsports activities (e.g., tug-of-war) that required each cabin to compete with each other for prestige or prizes. This competition resulted in boys from the two cabins hating each other, fighting, and committing pranks like stealing each other's cabin flag or eating the other cabin's food. This hostility and conflict lasted until Sherif organized a task that required both camps to cooperate with each other to achieve a goal. Having a mutual goal helped both sides cooperate and resulted in peace among the two groups. It forced members of each cabin to notice shared goals with one another and broke down their “us” versus “them” mentality. This holiday gathering, consider what mutual goals you and your family share to try and break down your own barriers.
Before we get into discussing strategies, you may be tempted to avoid the topic of politics at all costs. You know your family best, and if you feel that avoidance is the best course, then by all means go ahead. However, if you want to take on the challenge or if you have come close to having a calm talk with family in the past, then consider the following guidelines.
1. Know your audience. Is Uncle Henry the kind of person who is capable of having a respectful back and forth conversation? If so, great. If not, try to scale your expectations for a discussion on politics. One helpful way to scale includes asking yourself the following questions. What’s the best outcome? The worst outcome? And finally, what’s the most realistic outcome of this discussion?
2. Be assertive. Assertiveness lies on a spectrum between being passive (e.g., giving in or being indirect) and being aggressive (e.g., crossing physical or mentalboundaries). Assertiveness is the ability to stand up for yourself calmly and confidently, being respectful of your views and the views of others.
Some tips for expressing assertiveness: Pay attention to your nonverbal communication including eye contact, posture, and pose. Try to keep your feet planted firmly on the ground without leaning to either side. Look the other person in the eye. Keep your hands at your side and not crossed in front of you or in your pockets. These behaviors will help you come across as comfortable and will likely make the other person feel comfortable too. When you speak, be careful not to use language in a blaming tone because this will only make the other person defensive. Try to avoid this by not to starting off any sentence with "You". Instead, use “I” statements.(I’ll write more about assertiveness in a future post, so be on the lookout for more on how to be assertive soon!)
3. Focus on commonalities or mutual goals. Maybe you both believe that gun violence in the country is tragic and want an end to it. Try to work together to see if you can develop any ideas on how to improve this.
4. Listen. Be compassionate. Remember the things you like about the person. No one is perfect. Everyone makes mistakes from time to time. So often when emotions are stirred, listening takes a back seat to venting or yelling, and this emotional shift makes matters worse. If someone says something that seems to stir your emotions, take a deep breath and listen to what they are saying. Try to dig a little to get the full story of why this person thinks the way they do. Ask questions. Continue to pay attention to your emotions. If after listening and trying to understand this person you still feel angry, consider what you need. For example, do you need to take a break from the conversation?
5. Be sincere. Offer personal anecdotes and stories that support your view, rather than just relying on facts and news reports. A lot of people are suspicious of the news and question what is "fake" and what is not. Talking from personal experiences and sharing personal stories are much less likely to raise suspicions, thus making the other person more likely to really hear the point you are trying to make.
6. Don't assume the other person is wrong. True, they might be. But, everyone isentitled to their opinion. Coming at them combatively may only reinforce their opinion and make them more defensive towards you, making them even less likely to listen to you - even if you do have the correct information or facts.
7. Remember your reason for accepting or extending the invitation for the family gathering. What does this gathering mean to you? The holidays are a nostalgic time for many, and families are often spread out across the country, making opportunities to get together rare. Ask yourself how important these people are to you, and if being right or arguing is more or less important than that.
Sherif, M., Harvey, O. J., White, B. J., Hood, W. R., &Sherif, C. W. (1961). Intergroup conflict and cooperation: The Robbers Cave experiment (Vol. 10). Norman, OK: University Book Exchange.