“My brother voted for Trump,” said one patient of ours. “I dread hearing him tell me why he thinks the election was rigged. He always takes over the conversation, which makes it hard for me to share my views.”
Many families will gather over Zoom for the holidays—but even if you don’t see loved ones in person, talking about political differences may still create rifts with the people you love. As two helping professionals—a psychologist who counsels patients on how to work through family strife, and a social worker who teaches empathy—we know that hot-button issues like politics can trigger conflict with family members.
Empathy can help in these tough conversations. When you try to understand someone else’s views, even when they differ from your own, you’re doing what psychologists call “mentalizing.” In a political context, mentalizing can help humanize your opponent—and research suggests that’s a key component of “cognitive empathy,” which is what allows us to intellectually grasp where someone is coming from. Understanding another’s perspective can help adjust people’s political positions to make policy decisions, like devoting resources to help rural voters with job employment programs, or helping prison inmates who are convicted of activities that are no longer criminalized get released and helped. This kind of empathy is employed as part of what we call a civic project.
But when it comes to sorting through political conflicts at home, we envision employing empathy as a family project, not a civic project. Even if tough topics are difficult to broach, families do know how to make group decisions that take everyone’s well-being into account. For instance, families can compromise on what time to eat dinner, when to start a Zoom hangout, and how to budget for holiday gifts. Families don’t need to decide state policy budgets or safety mandates related to the pandemic—but engaging in this family project is good training for a better civic project. Political polarization raises a question: If we can’t discuss politics with loved ones, then where can politics be discussed?
When it comes to deciding to engage with family over politics, empathy applied with the spirit of the family project can help. This starts with learning how to decode your family’s typical communication pattern.
How families handle hard topics
Research on family communication patterns can help us understand the value, as well as the risk, of having conversations across differences in families. In the field of family communication, researchers have identified four family communication patterns. Each pattern hinges on two relational dimensions: conversational orientation and conformity.
Families high in conversational orientation talk frequently and spontaneously about multiple topics, and value sharing their personal experiences and feelings. Conformity, on the other hand, refers to the level of conformity in views that one or two powerful members of the family (usually a parent or grandparent) expect from other family members. These two dimensions create four family types, and each one comes with its own dilemma when it comes to discussing politics.
Families with a pluralist orientation bubble with conversation, and they value differing opinions. In these families, which seem increasingly rare as political polarization increases, members can usually engage in some degree of political conversation. As one conservative woman told us: “I like that my son’s political beliefs differ from mine. It tells me that we raised him to think for himself.” In this kind of family, the conversational task is managing your emotions so you not only express or hear the other person’s beliefs, but also dialogue about them.
Families with a consensual orientation fare high in both conformity and conversation. Volatile disagreement is frowned upon, and trust is built through open discussions about personal experiences and general life topics. The closeness of this kind of family may compel you to express values that matter to you, and yet you might feel reluctant to express your passions fully because it might upset loving family relationships. “We talk at least once a week about many things, like about my work life and the kids,” said one of our patients. “But we don’t talk about religion or politics. It’s just too painful, and it doesn’t help anything.” If this sounds like your family and you decide to embark on a political conversation, your task will be to maintain intimacy by embedding your discussion in the values you both share, and to offer up personal stories that explain why particular issues are important to you.
Families with a laissez-faire orientation are low in conversation and conformity. In these families, you may hold different political views, but it’s unusual to share them because the interest isn’t there. For example, you may not know what party your family member voted for, or if they voted at all, and feel political topics would land with a thud. But even if these topics aren’t discussed, they can linger like the elephant in the room, especially at a time when we’re surrounded by politics. In this kind of family, your task is to manage your expectations about how interested your family will be in something that matters to you, and to not feel personally rejected if you can’t get them to feel as passionately as you do.
Families with a protective orientation are high in conformity and low in conversation. In these families, trust does not build upon open communication, and expression of dissenting views will likely be squashed with sermonizing and mocking—or just avoidance. People in this kind of family often tell us: “I’ll get attacked if I try to talk politics.” For people who don’t conform, the price is often incredible emotional distance. In this kind of family, your difficult task is to weigh your need to express yourself with the need to remain a part of the family order.
If you are politically engaged (as many of us are these days), avoiding political confrontation may seem dishonest at best, treasonous at worst. Yet, though research generally shows strong relational benefits from open communication, some researchers describe an “ideology of openness” in family communication studies that undervalues the strategic use of topic avoidance for preserving relationships. As one experimental study showed, perceptions of others’ topic-avoidance strategies are perceived favorably when reasons for the avoidance are attributed to the other person’s desire to protect the relationship. From this perspective, “We have to agree to disagree” becomes the family mantra.
Questions that foster empathy
Understanding family communication patterns can help you empathize with the challenges and opportunities that political discussions pose for you and your family relationships. In times of stress, as when a family member is ill, families can decide on how to finance hospice care next month. If you are lucky, they can offer a space to talk about job insecurities and show pride in accomplishments, too. But family is also the place where we learn to evaluate our values—ones that inform our political beliefs. What if political topics do keep coming up, in a Zoom meeting or backyard gathering? Instead of going straight to the issues, you might ask yourself the following empathy-inducing questions on behalf of the family project.
First, employ an empathic perspective on yourself.
- If you express opposing views, what type of reaction can you tolerate? If there’s family strife, how much division is OK?
- Is your goal to build intimacy with your family? If so, will broaching differences help?
- By expressing your political beliefs, do you want to practice individuating from your family and being your own person? Or do you want to practice self-control, and not take the bait to fight over political differences?
Next, try to cultivate empathy for your family member.
- Is COVID-19 creating stronger feelings of isolation among your family members? Do they need relationships high in conversation orientation over many topics now more than ever?
- Are they emotionally stable enough to handle this kind of conflict?
- Would talking over political differences actually help them feel engaged and closer to you, or more apart?
Finally, employ an empathic perspective on the total family.
- Is there a crisis the family needs to rally around like child care, illness, or loneliness that a political fight could derail?
- Is the family devoid of meaningful conversation and is politics a way to get people talking about something substantive?
- Would talking politics recycle behaviors that have proven unsuccessful in the past?
If you’re able to answer these questions, you’ll know if a conversation across differences is possible—and if it is, the answers will help you to have a better kind of conversation. Empathy serves many purposes in political conversations, as well as in family relationships. Start by deciding what you and your family need. You may not change anyone’s political viewpoint—but the empathic effort can still bring you closer together.