Editor’s note: This story ran in @theU in November 2016.
By Brooke Adams, communications specialist, University Marketing and Communications
Professors David Derezotes and Paul H. White are feeling the tension and know you are feeling it, too. It’s a been a tumultuous election, the end of the semester, with all its pressures, is near and now here comes a holiday break when many of us are likely to be spending a lot more time than usual with family and friends who may not share our views.
“The holidays are when we get to see people we love, but it often puts us over the top in stress and we end up behaving in ways that might create more stress and even embarrass ourselves,” says Derezotes, a professor in the College of Social Work and director of Peace and Conflict Studies in the College of Humanities.
And this election, more than most, has many people feeling tense and fretful as they anticipate coming conversations and how to gracefully participate—or avoid—discussing politics and related issues, adds White, an associate professor of social psychology in the Department of Psychology.
Here is some advice from Derezotes and White to help you navigate the table talk.
Be patient with yourself.
Derezotes said that our defenses are at their lowest with people we are close to, who we know aren’t going to abandon or leave us. That means we (and they) show sides of ourselves we don’t in other settings. “We can give ourselves a break and give ourselves permission to be human beings. We will be triggered emotionally sometimes by what others say and may react in ways that we regret later, that is part of our human nature,” he said. We can understand and accept our vulnerability and continue to strive to treat others with kindness. “I have no control over the reactions of others, but I can change how I respond to them,” he said.
Consider the goal of the conversation.
When we have conversations about politics, religion or other things that people hold dear and value, we need to think about what our conversational goal is, White said. If the goal is to change opinion, change attitudes, the fact is the election is over. “Whether they voted for your candidate or against your candidate, that is done,” he said. “You may not be able to get the person to agree with your side and you need to respect that.” A better approach is trying to understand why someone else holds a certain position without automatically dismissing their view or trying to invalidate their position, White said. “If we can think about the fact that it is okay to have different opinions, those conversations can go much smoother than if we are trying to get people to think like we do.”
Give yourself space if need.
Even if you’ve traveled thousands of miles to see family or friends, it doesn’t mean you have to be with them 24/7, said Derezotes. “Just be conscious of the need for space,” he said. “Take a break, go for a walk. Most of us have a need for some space between conversations and if we don’t get it, we might get angry and then anger might become an ‘excuse’ for getting the space we need. It may be better just to ask for it before that happens.” It is okay to step away and take a break.
Set a ground rule if you just don’t want to go there.
If others want to talk about it and you don’t, let them know. You can say: “I do not feel comfortable talking about this” or “This issue is something I would rather not discuss.” Hopefully, people will respect those boundaries, White said. If they don’t? White, like Derezotes, suggests physically stepping away from the conversation for a time. “If you find yourself being engaged in those conversations, say it’s okay that we disagree and pull yourself out of it,” White said.
Use dialogue instead of debate.
Dialogue involves speaking with respect and listening for understanding. Imagine a book opened and placed with its pages facing down on a table, like a roof. The covers slope on either side of the narrow spine. One side is a slippery slope toward aggression, the other side a slippery slope to passivity and withdrawal. “Neither extreme approach is helpful in the long run in creating intimacy, mutual trust, cooperation and inclusive communities,” Derezotes said. “Instead, I want to try to walk on that narrow path between aggression and passivity, where I confirm and and validate both my own position and at the same time confirm that of others—which does not mean I necessarily agree.”
“As hard as it feels to take that path of dialogue, that is where cooperation and relationship can come from,” he adds. “You are going to slip occasionally but as long as we continue striving for that, we can stay in relationship with the people we love. And when I do slide down one slope or another, I forgive myself and go back to walking that narrow path again.”
Treat each other with respect.
Yes, the election is important, being civically and politically engaged is important, but your family and friends are important as well, White said. Try not to use language that seems to be accusatory. Examples: “You are saying X, why are you saying X? What does this mean to you?”
“Those kinds of little validation techniques can get people to open up and be more responsive to a communication,” White said. “We need to remember to treat each other with respect even if we disagree. That is the starting line. No matter what your position or attitude is, that will help.”