Challenger School

5 Tips for Navigating Political Discussions At The Holiday Table

UNLV Couple and Family Therapy program director offers strategies for when requests to pass the gravy escalate into debates on passing tax and immigration reform.

Seven in 10 adults agree it’s not a proper Thanksgiving meal unless you celebrate with family, and over 6 in 10 Americans say they prepare Thanksgiving meals with family, according to results of the most recent Harris Poll.

But with the charged political climate of late, requests to pass the gravy can quickly escalate into spirited debates over passing tax and immigration reform.

Katherine M. Hertlein, director of the Couple and Family Therapy Program in UNLV’s School of Medicine, is an expert on helping people with post traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety and psychosomatic symptoms. Through her program, she works with clients to process their feelings and figure out how to tactfully parse through opposing views on a variety of sensitive issues — skills that may be particularly handy during the upcoming holiday season.

Below, Hertlein offers a few strategies for navigating potential political discord at this year’s family table.

  • Have realistic expectations. One of the aspects of family conversation that dysregulates us is the unrealistic expectation that family members will share our viewpoints. Part of reducing your reactivity to your family is to recognize what you can reasonably expect rather than setting yourself up for disappointment in expecting something unrealistic.
  • Adopt a stance of curiosity. Most people expressing their views are not doing so to purposely cause harm. Be curious about one’s stance and ask questions to fully understand their view rather than making statements yourself to keep the conversation going. This will enable you to find areas of commonality, agreement, and potential for feeling and expressing empathy.
  • Buy yourself some time. When people express views contradictory to your own, we may have a tendency to respond from an emotional rather than a balanced position. Phrases such as “I need some time to think about that; I’ll get back to you” provide you a chance to reflect on how to communicate your message in a balanced and respectful way.
  • Recognize the value system from which the comments originate. Part of what bonds a family is the shared set of values. While the people around the table may not agree about the way in which something should proceed, you may find that their rationale for their decision is rooted in a shared value, such as concern for children, concern for healthcare, etc. It may also help to consider the motivation behind one’s statements, recognizing that they are not likely intended to create harm but instead reflect good intention.
  • When in doubt, find a way out. If you anticipate a conversation will move you away from building a relationship and you are unable to maintain a level of psychological distance, consider using physical distance. Develop an exit plan prior to any conversation where you may anticipate difficulties. Having a plan ahead of time that you may or may not choose to use returns you to feeling like you are in a sense of control, and reduces the likelihood that you will seek to obtain control through increasing the volume or intensity of your voice.

Katherine M. Hertlein, PhD, is the director of the Couple and Family Therapy Program in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health, School of Medicine, University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Across her academic career, she has published over 60 articles, 8 books, and over 50 book chapters. She lectures nationally and internationally on technology, couples, and sex. Dr. Hertlein maintains a private practice in Las Vegas, Nevada.


About author