Families soon will be gathering around the table again. But this may be a different holiday than before.
Uncle Fred vociferously supported the electoral winner. Aunt Millie spent hours volunteering for the loser. Cousin Kathie posted on Facebook her strong feelings about immigration. Brother Bob responded with equally inflamed posts.
Mom and dad just want everybody to get along – but they split their votes, too. Everybody’s angry.
In the wake of the most divisive and intensely partisan election of our lifetimes, how do we talk across party lines?
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The situation facing many who are returning home for the holidays may be more inflamed than in previous years, but is not entirely new. Shanto Iyengar, a professor of political science and communications at Stanford, has written of the rise of political affiliation in separating us over the last six or so decades.
Unlike in the 1950s, party affiliation now matters overwhelmingly in interpersonal relationships. Other researchers have found that political affiliation is now more indicative of division than even race.
With political affiliation, there is a sense of group membership that includes a positive evaluation of one’s “in” groups and a hostility to “out” groups that is not constrained by social norms. That’s what we’re seeing now, across the country.
So is it even possible to talk across party lines? It is certainly possible to listen.
We would never advocate putting yourself in emotionally unsafe situations, with someone in whom you lack trust or who might differ on your own civil rights. But with people whom you want or need to maintain a relationship, what can you do?
Mediators note that parties in conflict come in with competing narratives about what happened while sharing some larger common goals. For example, a divorcing couple differs on why the marriage broke up, but agrees on the need to develop a business-like relationship for the sake of the children.
This couple may never agree on what happened, but they can focus on agreed-upon outcomes and how to get there.
Political conflict is different, of course, but can we re-tell our narrative, and find common goals? Are there creative questions to ask which may re-frame conflict?
For instance, what kind of country do we want? Do we agree that prosperity and lessening economic disparity is a goal? Equal opportunity? World peace?
We might disagree on how to get to these goals, but can we focus on the goals themselves?
In conflict resolution trainings, we focus on looking critically at different conflict resolution styles – competition, accommodation, avoidance, compromise – all of which may be appropriate at different times. In talking across party lines, we need to ask the question, which of these make sense?
A relative from the other party who has had too much wine, please avoid. But with someone who differs with you on tax policy – while you both want lessening inequality and widespread prosperity – maybe there is some room for compromise, after a competition of good ideas.
Mediators don’t try to sugarcoat conflict. It is tough. Good people can struggle with tough interpersonal conflicts. Our brains are programmed to respond emotionally first and logically second.
In mediation, it is normal to have a “venting stage” during which rawer emotions are aired. It is normal to “awfulize” the other person in a conflict.
But after that stage, we can begin listening and settle in to problem-solving.
In mediation, we’ve seen too many angry parties find either resolution or a way to at least abide each other. Here’s hoping you can maintain the relationships you want or need to maintain, across party lines, at the holiday table and beyond.