How to Talk Politics at the Holiday Table

Published: October 30, 2018

Holidays mean family time, and family time means sharing—gifts and meals and time together and, frequently, opinions about politics. The holiday dinner table is a time-tested battleground for political disagreements among family members. People want to talk about the current politically charged environment, and passions are running high.

So how do you handle a situation where you have major disagreements over politics with a family member? Especially during the holiday season, when you may be spending time around people you love but don’t see very often? We asked Rachael Bain-Chase, our outreach and education director and a licensed clinical social worker, for a little advice.

Curiosity is the key.

It may be natural to feel defensive or even combative when you go into a discussion about politics, Bain-Chase said. The way to flip that is to be genuinely interested in understanding the other person’s point of view.

“Be truly curious about how they came by their opinion,” she said. “Ask why they see things the way they do. As more questions about how they came by what they believe. What shaped their opinion? Does it make sense to you? Can you see why they believe as they do?”

The point is to promote understanding and connection. “Then you may have an opportunity to tell your own story. You might ask, ‘Would you be mind if I share why I feel the way I do? May I share my experience?’ Even if nobody changes their mind, you can achieve some mutual understanding.”

Don’t put up with bad behavior.

Political conversations can be uncomfortable—that’s just the way they are. But if the discomfort spills over into behavior that’s insulting or derogatory, it’s time to stop.

“There’s no room for open hostility, and any language that would offend someone on the basis of their race or religion or political views has no place at holiday gatherings—especially when children are present,” Bain-Chase said. “You may have family members who are testing the waters to see whether it’s safe to come out as gay or trans, or reveal a relationship, and this kind of behavior can be especially harmful to them.”

Always try to address the situation calmly. Tell the offending relative their behavior is making people uncomfortable and isn’t okay. Let them know you might have to just agree to disagree and stop the political discussion.

“And don’t be afraid to take a stand. If the inappropriate behavior continues, you might just have to leave. People yelling at each other will not lead to any good outcome,” said Bain-Chase.

Can you actually hope to change someone’s mind?

“Think about a time when you actually changed your mind about something important? How did that happen? Chances are, it wasn’t the result of arguing or shouting. It was the result of a relationship.”

Bain-Chase said that developing understanding and making a connection are the first steps in influencing another person’s opinion. “Maybe you can plant a seed. Maybe you say something that resonates, and the other person can find examples in their own life that validate your experience. Making that kind of connection creates a foundation for change.”

So if you’re thinking about bombarding your holiday guest with your opinions, you might want to think again. Be genuinely curious. Be respectful and don’t put up with others’ disrespect. Try to make a connection with that difficult relative. You may not change their opinion this holiday season. But you may be surprised what happens in holidays to come.