With the holiday season in full swing, we’re baking, wrapping gifts, trimming trees — and mentally preparing ourselves to dodge irate comments from relatives with polar opposite political views and with whom we may have exchanged a nasty Facebook message (or 12).
Engaging in verbal warfare over political matters has become a national pastime. With social media making it a breeze to reduce someone you’d probably find common ground with over a beer to a cardboard partisan fool, some of us aren’t looking forward to the holidays. Will the holiday ham burn in the oven while we’re trying to make Uncle Andy repent for his erroneous attitudes toward gun control?
The solution isn’t to avoid politics, sex, and religion and focus on the ham, says Celeste Headlee, host of Georgia Public Broadcasting’s On Second Thought and author of We Need to Talk: How to Have Conversations That Matter. So what do we do instead? The solution, Headlee says, is to practice empathy.
“We often think listening to someone’s point of view is giving them a benefit,” Headlee tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “But research shows we take a ton of benefits from listening to different perspectives. It makes us smarter, a better version of ourselves, and creative thinkers. Even if you think it’s unfathomable, you make yourself a better person by listening to their opinion.”
Heed Headlee’s tips on how to have better conversations — and fewer fights — this holiday season and you could walk away with a new perspective on the same old topic.
Stop trying to change people’s minds
Gun ownership is the No. 1 most divisive topic these days, Headlee says. Sexual harassment charges, abortion, and the Trump presidency are also issues in which one generally takes a hard stance rooted in individual values. If your motivation in discussing contentious topics is to “win” or recruit family members to your team, it’s not going to end well.
“When was the last time you had a conversation with someone where you totally disagree and you end up changing the person’s mind?” Headlee says. “It’s not going to happen. Quit worrying about the effect on them and concentrate on the effect the discussion can have on you.”
Make empathy and understanding your goal
Shifting your goal from winning to gaining empathy and understanding is the path to personal growth.
“Every person deserves respect, every opinion does not,” Headlee says. “This strategy we have of not talking about things that will cause disagreement actually means we don’t understand politics and religion, and that’s a problem — it’s time to do something else. Increasing empathy is an important goal because it encourages us to help each other in times of trouble.”
A few practical tips: Never speak for more than 30 to 60 seconds at a time. If someone insists on going overboard, politely interrupt, repeat what they’ve said, state your thoughts, and ask a clarifying question about why they feel the way they do.
Recognize your anger and don’t accept abuse
Becoming more self-aware and being present (not just thinking about how you want to reply) is crucial if you want to have better conversations. The first few times you discuss difficult topics, Headlee warns, you might lose your cool.
“Stop and tell them you’re emotional and you don’t want to say something you’ll regret,” Headlee says. “Say, ‘Give me a few minutes to chill out, and then let’s talk about it.’”
Handling others’ anger is also a skill. If someone hurls an insult at you, it’s best to be upfront.
“I never let anyone be verbally abusive,” Headlee says. “I stop and say, ‘Listen, that’s an insult, and I’m not here for it. I’d love to have a civil conversation, but I’m not going to debate if it’s an argument.’ You need to have ground rules, and if they won’t listen, you step away — that’s self-care.”
Own up to bad behavior
Called your cousin “ignorant” or a “libtard” on Facebook and now you’re breaking bread together? There’s only one way to handle that one.
“If you’re writing anything on digital media, you are a worse version of yourself than on a phone call or in person,” Headlee says. “Apologize.”
Facts aren’t always king
Bringing facts to an emotionally charged discussion is like presenting a mounted deer head at a yoga retreat. Even if your uncle is spewing “facts” that sound like they came from a book of fairy tales, Headlee says, presenting links to 200 articles to prove him wrong — in public — is not going to further the discussion.
“Ask questions about their personal opinion, not what they saw on Fox News or NBC,” Headlee says. “Humans don’t like to get information that goes against what they believe. It’s inherently illogical, but there’s another purpose to our illogic than our survival. We are social and emotional — let’s see that as a strength and not as a weakness.”
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