Perils of discussing politics with family and friends – by Terry Howard

Silly me! 

I failed to heed this advice from a friend: “Don’t mess with political discussions in the family,” and learned the hard way what can happen when wise counsel collides with actual experience. Without doubt, you’ve probably read your share of articles telling you to stay away from talking politics in the workplace and around the dinner table. 

You see, what should have been an uneventful ride to the airport turned out to be anything but. The culprit? Politics or, more to the point, disagreement between the two of us on our firm political positions. 

Now having gotten clues in his earlier comments about politics, I knew full well that the two us were definitely on opposite ends of the political spectrum but figured that our ride to the airport provided an opportunity to understand our rationales. Okay, I’ll admit that there’s a side of me – maybe just curiosity, maybe just the human – that wants to mess with societal taboos. But thanks to my bone-headed beginning, this time it didn’t get off to a healthy start. 

“So, tell me why anyone intelligent would vote for that corrupt candidate,” I asked after turning down the radio. 

Oh, oh, mistake, too late; I let the proverbial “cat out of the bag.” 

I immediately realized that my choice of the word “intelligent” was not so “intelligent” and he let me know that in no uncertain terms. From there things went south replete with back-and-forth interruptions as our positions hardened. 

When we finally pulled into the garage to return our rental, silence enveloped us and that was that; no resolution, no closure, no eye contact, no nothing. 

On the flight home, I thought about that exchange and what it suggested about him, about me, about our “United” States of America and about the complexities inherent in attempts to talk to each other across political differences. 

Look, there’s no doubt that we live in a highly charged political climate these days, where many see those on the opposite side as the “enemy.” And given that we’re in the middle of a testy race for President next year, is the solution not to talk about politics? How can you have a discussion about politics without it deteriorating into finger-pointing, arguments and alienation? Is the solution to edit what to say and not say? 

And what do we lose when we don’t discuss thorny topics like politics for fear of being bludgeoned into submission and ostracized as hopelessly clueless? The answers are elusive, aren’t they? 

So, who’s to blame for this present-day conundrum?

Well, I suppose one can point a finger to exploitive politicians and to a ratings hungry media for widening the divide. For example, research shows just how much the nation’s bitter political divide is causing splintering and taking a toll of relationships. 


A poll conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, showed that 8 in 10 Republicans believe the Democratic Party has been taken over by socialists, while 8 in 10 Democrats believe the Republican Party has been taken over by racists. The report is aptly named titled “Dueling Realities.” 

Tania Israel, a professor in the counseling, clinical and school psychology department at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said she’s seeing more of those kinds of distorted views in the workshops she runs on cross-the-aisle conversations. “The rancor is rising,” she said, “as both sides tend to view the other as being more extreme than they actually are.”

“A little more listening to understand, a little less trying to convince, and a lot more intellectual humility would do everyone a world of good,” said Israel, the author of Beyond Your Bubble: How to Connect Across the Political Divide, Skills and Strategies for Conversations That Work. “We’re flattening people out in terms of our view of them,” she said, “and we’re not really seeing the full complexity of people on the other side.” 

So, common sense and conventional wisdom has it that the best thing to do is not engage in highly charged political conversations, especially with friends and family. Perhaps.

But not so fast. Some say that it’s more conversations — not less — that’s needed if the nation is to heal its divide because, employing the recent words of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Jackson Brown at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, “…uncomfortable lessons are often the ones that teach us the most about ourselves.”

Advises “Lucille,” a local expert in leadership development, “if I enter these conversations, my rule of thumb is for all of us to demonstrate that we know a candidate’s platform. If they don’t and I do, it’s a wrap – we’re not on the same wavelength so it’s a moot point to go any further.”

“My advice is to test the waters before stepping into political conversations,” said “Barry” who recommends that you have a strategy to back out of the conversation if you must. 

In the end, perhaps we’re better off questioning our true motivations before venturing into discussions with friends and family members who have political positions different from ours with this simple question – “is my motivation to understand or to change?” 

If it’s to understand, it’s key to find the right language, perhaps words to the effect, “I value our relationship and am genuinely interested in knowing about…..” (and avoid my knuckle headed beginning on that ride to that airport.) 

But if your motivation is to change his/her political position, advises “Priscilla,” hell no, don’t go there! 

Terry Howard

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