I’m not talking about the stereotypical crazy uncle at your Thanksgiving dinner. I’m talking about your sister or father or son whose beliefs are a real impediment to your family functioning. Maybe you don’t have a relationship with them any more. Or maybe you do, and that’s what hurts.
If you’ve listened to or read the news in the last decade, you’ve come across someone discussing how polarized America is these days. Today, with unprecedented access to infinite opinions and knowledge, these polarizations have begun to infiltrate our normally monolithic institutions, like our schools, churches, towns, and yes, families.
I come from a Jewish family, and my parents have been proud Democrats since I can remember. In the last 20 years, 3 of my family members have gone steadily to the “right,” either religiously or politically. And the other 3 members of my family have drastically moved “left,” BOTH religiously and politically. So you can see, I have some personal experience with familial polarization, not to mention that as a therapist I work with many individuals and families with similar family dynamics.
I’d like to offer some ways I’ve learned to navigate this incredibly difficult situation.
#1: Talk to them about it.
I put this at number 1 not necessarily because you should start with this, but because it’s the most important and, also, the hardest to do. HOW do you talk to them without it blowing up in your face and ruining your already fragile relationship? Read on.
#2: Set aside your ego for a short period of time
This means even though you “know” you’re right and they’re horribly misguided, for the duration of one conversation, assume they’re right, or at least that they’re not stupid or evil. This doesn’t have to mean you’re “wrong.” I’m just asking you to pause that part of your brain so that your family member can express their opinions without you attacking them or defending yourself. And when I say “a short period of time,” I mean enough time for them to feel like you might be interested in what they have to say. Once they feel comfortable that they’ve been heard (see #3 below), then you can ask them for a chance to talk about your beliefs. You might want to wait for a separate opportunity to discuss your opinions, rather than immediately after they’ve shared theirs for 2 reasons: they might be emotionally unavailable to listen to you after sharing their beliefs with you; and you might be feeling defensive about your beliefs and end up sharing a little more aggressively than you hoped.
#3: Listen to them
Don’t spend all your energy waiting for them to stop talking so that you can interject counter arguments. In fact, I challenge you to not use one counter argument. Here are some guidelines for listening to people (this is literally my job, so hopefully you can trust that I might have something useful to say about listening to people):
- Ask them if it’s okay if you ask them a question before asking your question. They may still have more to say before wanting to change the direction of the conversation.
- Be curious (or at least pretend to be curious). Ex: “Oh that’s interesting… does that mean you also believe _____?” “Where did you learn that?” “When did you first start believing _____?” “Does it bother you when I talk about my beliefs?”
- Ask for clarification. This can REALLY help avoid any misunderstandings. Ex. “You just said that ______, right?” And let them correct you if you’ve misheard them.
- Don’t interrupt them. Wait until there’s an obvious end to the point their making. (This one sounds easier than it really is.)
#4: Protect yourself
Don’t let them attack you or your beliefs (Ex: “Liberals are too sensitive.” “Trump supporters are Nazis.” “Secular people are immoral.” “Religious people are nuts.” “You’re in a cult, and you’re being brainwashed.” etc.). Stand up for your beliefs. Let them know that judgements like that are not going to help your relationship. Save those judgments for AFTER your conversation, when you’re home and talking to a supportive friend or significant other. Also, don’t forget to check in with your own emotions. It will likely be incredibly difficult to hear some of the things your family member is saying. Take a break, be it a few minutes or a few days. Ask your family member to slow down. You’re taking a very difficult step in your relationship with your family member. Recognize that it’s not supposed to be easy. If it was easy, you wouldn’t be reading any of this.
#5: Be prepared to have more than one conversation
Depending on many factors, including the depth of your relationship and the length of time you have held opposing views, you may not come to any deep understanding after your first confrontation. The goal of speaking to each other is not to convince one another of your beliefs. It’s to be able to have a relationship where you can respect each other. This requires more than one conversation.
#6: Have them read this article too!
Being on the same page with your family member will drastically improve the odds that both of you come out feeling more connected with each other. It also will make it less awkward when you try to ask a curious question and fumble through it, because they’ll understand what you’re trying to do.
You can do this!