STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — Are differing political views destroying your family harmony? If so, you’re not alone.
Whether it’s an angry shout across a crowed family dinner table or a silent cold shoulder from an offended spouse, today’s polarizing political environment is causing family strife everywhere — and therapists say they see the results.
While discussions about politics can spur a lively, even enjoyable, debate, they can also result in damaging remarks and hurt feelings.
But there are things you can do to keep the peace — especially at the holiday dinner table — while still keeping lines of communication open between loved ones, according to a local expert.
Katie Nuzzo, a licensed mental health counselor with Serenity Psychotherapy, Livingston, said differing political views are to be expected, but how we approach them makes all the difference.
Just think of how hard it is to make dinner for a family of five, Nuzzo said with a laugh. “Who likes this, who’s allergic to that, who doesn’t like that — if we can’t even agree on food, how can we agree on politics?”
Nuzzo, who has been in private practice since 2018, said the anxiety surrounding politics in families wasn’t much of an issue back in her internship years while Donald Trump was first running for president.
Socio-political differences really spiked during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, causing more rifts among families, she said.
“Everyone was locked in the house and all they did was watch the news,’’ said Nuzzo, who often counsels couples and families in emotional crisis. “Even COVID turned political.”
Family problems occur, Nuzzo said, when we don’t talk to listen and understand.
“We talk to be heard,” she said. “And that’s the problem. We’re trying to change other people’s opinions instead of understanding where the person is coming from.’’
Listening and trying to understand why the person feels the way they do — even if you don’t agree — will result in respectful conversations and discussions, rather than debates, she said.
This type of listening, called active listening, involves making a conscious effort to understand and retain the information that’s being shared with you. It involves more than listening to the words being said. Instead, you consciously analyze what you hear, and try to pick up on intent, content and emotion from the speaker. According to research from Colorado State University (CSU), doing so reduces misunderstandings and prevents people from jumping to conclusions — a dangerous habit.
“If you find yourself becoming upset about what’s being said, ask for clarification,” the CSU researchers reported. “Say, ‘It sounds like you mean X, and I just want to clarify. Are you saying Y?’ By giving them a chance to rephrase or clarify, you avoid making unfair assumptions.”
When planning to gather multiple generations for family holidays, like Thanksgiving Day, Nuzzo made a few suggestions to keep the peace.
Before the event, establish that politics won’t be a topic of conversation, Nuzzo said. “Even in the event that we can have a respectable conversation about this, it usually turns ugly very quickly,’’ she said.
But be aware that any topic can quickly turn to politics.
Talking about the price of paint when discussing a home improvement project, for example, leads to discussions about inflation, then policies, then political leaders, one frustrated host reported.
Nuzzo acknowledged this, but suggested that we quickly change the direction of the conversation.
“Have other topics ready,’’ she said. “Steer it outside of politics. Is wallpaper cheaper than paint? Talk about colors.’’
WATCH BODY LANGUAGE
Our body language tells more about our attitudes and emotions than our words ever could, researchers have found. In an effort to avoid conflict, we should be mindful of what our body is saying as we talk and listen.
In fact, experts in interpersonal communication estimated hat nonverbal communication constitutes approximately 70% of what is involved in communication, according to The Hearing Journal. That means only about 30% of communication involves the actual words that we use.
When a controversial subject comes up, experts advised to be aware of body movements, like fidgeting and squirming. Also be sure to make eye contact when listening or speaking. Controlling facial expressions will go a long way toward expressing understanding, they said.
When speaking, avoid violent gestures and control you tone of voice, the researchers said.
MARRIAGES MAY SUFFER
Even without holiday gatherings setting the scene for the perfect storm, political polarization takes its toll daily on smaller family units. Marriages are vulnerable, too, Nuzzo said.
“People are getting divorces over it,’’ she said, explaining that strong marriages are often built by common ground when it comes to religion and politics. “It’s what binds them together. When you get down to the foundation and there’s a divide in the foundation, it causes friction in the marriage.’’
But marriages can be saved, even if the spouses have differing political views, Nuzzo said. It will take some work, she admitted.
“People see politics as a black-and-white issue, and it’s not; there are a lot of grey areas,’’ she said.
Sitting down together and trying to find some common ground will go a long way, Nuzzo said. “Maybe, get the parties to conform slightly, so it’s not so polarizing.’’
This is where respectful communication comes into play, she said, learning to express ideas without being hurtful, or rushing to judgement.
That’s where growth takes place, Nuzzo said.
“Remember why you fell in love in the first place,’’ she advised. “If you love someone, you’re going to go out of your way to understand them.’’
Anyone who’s ever read or posted anything on social media knows its profoundly polarizing affect. Nuzzo said she’s seen it breaking up families.
Memes posted on Facebook or Instagram that are meant to be lighthearted and funny are often taken as critical attacks, she said, and they can be the start of may family conflicts.
“I think a lot of people forget that it’s public, and they use (social media) more as a journal,’’ she said, suggesting that people should take a moment before posting.
Use the acronym “THING,” she suggested. Ask yourself if the post is True, Helpful, Inspiring, Necessary or Kind. If it isn’t any one of those things, don’t post it, she said.
Ultimately, the question you should ask yourself is: “Why am I posting this?” she said. Posting to insult or retaliate against others is always a bad idea, she said, and people should consider the consequences.
Be mindful about what you’re posting, Nuzzo said. “If you wouldn’t say it to someone in life, face to face, maybe just (don’t) do it on social media.”