How to Talk To Your Relatives at Thanksgiving

One of the calls to action after the election has been to talk to members of your family that have different political beliefs than you.

The constant refrain before the election was not to bother talking because you aren’t going to change anyone’s mind, or that it’s more important to keep your familial relationships than to risk damaging them over politics.

All of the statements above have merit. The standard state of discourse as I see it — explaining why your position is right and why the other position is wrong — doesn’t work. If you just state your case, then you’re more likely to create divisiveness. The temptation for either side to start demonizing the other is high. At the same time if both sides don’t talk to each other it becomes even easier to demonize the other side.

So, I’m going to discuss techniques for talking about difficult topics, in this case politics, that maximize the probability of strengthening your relationships rather than poisoning them.

Reframe Your Goals

There is a catch to this method in that you have to let go of the need to convince your relatives that their positions are wrong.

Your new goal is to understand your family members, and perhaps more importantly to make them feel understood.

Why understanding? Because when someone feels understood they feel more open to change. Because understanding makes it easier to find mutually beneficial solutions. Because people who understand each other see each other as human.

A statement I’ve been hearing a lot is that Democrats forgot to listen to a key part of their usual demographic and that bit them. How much of that is because that demographic doesn’t speak as respectfully as we’d like? We couldn’t continue listening when we heard language that makes us want to vomit. As the good, caring, compassionate people in this fight, the onus is on us to take on the mantle of listening.

It’s important to remember that understanding is not the same as agreeing or condoning.

Don’t Allow Yourself to Feel Superior

It’s important to remember to be humble. Just because you are doing the hard work of understanding their side, you can’t allow yourself to feel superior. The minute you do that, you lose everything. Liberals already get marked as “Smarter than Thou”, and that shuts off communication. You’re asking someone to be vulnerable. If they are willing, that’s brave.

Also, being the instigator of this conversation is the easier place to be in. You’re in control of the conversation. You get to prepare ahead of time. You’re more likely to be successful at communicating your point. You don’t need to gloat.

Also, presumably these are people you care about. These are at heart people you believe are generally “good people.” If you let yourself feel superior, you’ll hurt these relationships.

On that note, have this conversation with someone you genuinely otherwise respect and care about. This kind of conversation is hard enough even when you’ve that going for you.

Be Prepared to Find Out You’re Wrong

Every time I’ve employed this method I’ve found out that some assumption I’ve had was incorrect. I felt embarrassed and terrible and ultimately was a better person for it.

Brace Yourself to Lose Respect for Your Loved Ones

There’s a chance that you could discover unsavory beliefs about your loved ones that will make it hard to go back to the relationship you had. You have to decide how likely this possibility is and if it’s worth the risk.

I think that’s enough preamble. Now to the method:

Figure Out What You Want to Achieve

A good achievable goal is something like “understanding why my relative voted the way they did”. That doesn’t require any change on their part. They’ll probably be happy to tell you. The key word here is understand, which means you can empathize enough with them to walk through their thought process to why they voted. You can put that thought process in your own words and your relative agrees that you’ve summed up their stance.

It’s tempting to underestimate the value of this goal. You haven’t changed anyone’s mind, after all. Except that you have. You’ve changed your own. You’ve learned something about your relative.

But here’s the thing, by successfully achieving this goal, you may be the first liberal to have listened to their side in years. There’s a human face that they love on the other side.

More expansive goals are OK too. The goal “I want my relative to understand why I voted the way I did” is within the realm of possibility. Or even “I want my relative to understand why I believe their vote was harmful” is possible although it’s a tougher sell than the former.

The point is you want to go in knowing what you want to get out of the conversation. This way you can prepare. This way it’s more likely to go the way you want.

I also suggest picking one topic because it’s easier to prepare for and, I think, more likely to be successful than if you’ve have several topics.

Seek First to Understand

As the person reaching out, it is your job to understand first. This means asking questions. This means listening. This means listening past things that aren’t said respectfully. I am all for striving for respectful, politically correct speech, but… behind the garbage talk is probably some pain that makes sense. Look for that.

During this understanding phase you do not get to voice your opinion. You ask questions and you repeat what they have said in your own words. Invite them to correct you. Apologize if things get tense. Remind them that you are trying to understand.

This is not the time to point out how wrong they are or the implications of their beliefs. They are opening up to you.

Only when you get the point where when you ask the question “do you feel like I understand your position?” and they say “yes” do you get to move on.

Repeating what they’ve just said sounds artificial, but it works. If they feel like you’re being condescending, apologize with as much sincerity as you can muster. You just want to make sure that they feel understood.

Feeling awkward and artificial is a reasonable price for a successful conversation. With practice it will become more natural.

You Can Be Done Here

If your goal was to understand your relative, then you are done. You’ve done good work. You can go home and think about what you’ve learned.

If your goal was more expansive…

Then Seek to Be Understood

Ask them how they believe you feel about a given topic. “Who do you think I voted for? Why do you think I voted that way?” Press them to empathize. Do the repeating thing again. “So you think I voted because I don’t care about murdering babies?”. Make sure you’re on the same page. Only then do you get to say how they are wrong. And your relative can’t argue, since these are your feelings and beliefs. Also, your relative cares about you. They want you to be a good person.

After stating your case, press them to repeat what you just said. If they can’t do it, state your case again. Then ask again. As best you can, be humble. “I just want to make sure that I am understood. Have you felt sufficiently understood?”

Again, this will feel artificial. Do it anyway. Apologize for the artificialness. Apologize for being so insecure about their understanding.

This step is only finished when you feel that your relative has adequately stated your side.

Eat Some Pie

If you get this far, you win everything. This is how you change minds. This is how you create healthy discourse.

You deserve pie. You will probably be exhausted.


Before you have this conversation, I highly recommend preparing. When I have used this method, I attribute my preparation ahead of time to how well the conversation went. The better I prepared, the more in control I was of the conversation and the more I understood my position.

No conversation went the way I expected, but by preparing I was able to navigate the unexpected turns. I knew what I hoped to achieve, and I understood my position.

By preparing I mean things like reading books on how to do this kind of conversation. The one that come immediately to mind is: 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey. The conversation method I described above is literally Habit 5: “Seek first to Understand then to be Understood”. It has examples of this conversation method playing out, which I’ve found helpful. (The examples are a bit over optimistic, but it’s a self-help book, so what do you expect? It’s still useful.)

Once you feel you understand the method, roleplay the encounter. I do this in my head, and write down the branches of the conversation tree. I figure out my response to each branch and write it down. This does a couple of things. It helps me react better during the conversation, and this helps me clarify my position and my assumptions.

You can roleplay with someone close to you. Have them pretend to be your relative while you have this conversation with them. I guarantee it will be enlightening. (And probably fun? Who doesn’t like playing a problematic person?)

You have my permission to print out your notes and take them to Thanksgiving. Yes, you will look weird. It’s OK. In addition to looking weird, it shows your sincerity which will help you.

If you’re going to have this conversation in front of your family at Thanksgiving, it might be a good idea to let some sympathetic relatives know ahead of time. Having people on your side makes it easier. Their job would be to encourage your target relative to humor you.  

They Would Never Be This Kind to Me

As Michelle Obama said, “When they go low, we go high.” This is the right and good way to go about political discourse. It sucks. Life isn’t fair. Do you want to sulk, or do you want to make it better?

Take heart that when you initiate this kind of conversation you have the upperhand. You’ve prepared ahead of time, your relatives haven’t.

Also, this is not the same as being told to be nice to the bully. You are asking or even insisting that your relatives see someone who disagrees with them as a person. That’s not a small feat.

This Will Be Super Awkward

Yep. It probably will. It’ll be especially awkward when you fish out your notes at the dinner table and start the conversation. Accept that and do it anyway.

How Do I Deal With Dehumanizing Speech or Incorrect Facts?

Another bit of wisdom from 7 Habits is this: “There is a space between stimulus and response.” You are being baited, whether your relative is doing it consciously or not. You do not have to take the bait. Breath. Keep your desire to understand and your love for this person at the forefront. Remember the people who will be hurt if you disengage from the conversation.

If the attack is at you, “you’re just a whiny millennial”, first breath. Extend that space between stimulus and response. Then remind them of your relationship. “I’m your niece”. You can mention that what they’re saying is hurtful, but it’s probably better to redirect the conversation back on topic. Then ask your relative how you can better understand them. Remember your goal. You didn’t want to have a discussion about millennials. You wanted to talk about whatever your goal was. If you have a notepad you can write down millennials as a topic for future discussion.

If the attack is at others, I’d recommend ignoring and pushing past it. The goal here is to understand. Shaming and putting people on the defensive doesn’t lead to understanding. That said, if it feels too much like condoning bad behaviour to you, I’d follow the advice of this video and attack what was said and not the person saying it.

If your relative is spouting incorrect facts like “global warming is a hoax to kill business”, “Obamacare is a disaster”, “Where was Obama’s birth certificate anyway?”, resist the urge to correct them. (As someone who values truth, I fully get that this is hard.) Your goal is understanding. Figure out how they came to these conclusions. Where are they getting their information from. How did they come to agree with these ideas? To the best of your ability don’t try to Socrates them into changing their minds. And by “Socrates them” I mean asking questions to point out the flaws in their logic. It’s smug. It shows how little you respect them. You’re just showing off how smart you are. Learn from Socrates. That behavior literally got him killed.

Good Luck

This is a lot of work. But it is good work. With practice it gets easier. Take heart that you are doing the right thing. You are demonstrating good political discourse. You are making the world a better place.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *