When political differences create family drama — and how to handle it at Thanksgiving

WATCH: Family politics — Staying civil at the dinner table during a heated election campaign

With the federal election just around the corner, Thanksgiving dinner will likely come with a side of political debate.

“There’s often that one relative who always has to be right … or a relative who is insufferable, won’t listen and wants to pontificate,” says Melanee Thomas, an associate professor of political science at the University of Calgary.

While some families have more civil discussions than others, Thomas says, research shows Canadian society may be becoming more polarized.

A recent political study found evidence of “affective polarization” among the Canadian public, which is described as a “dislike of parties or their supporters on the other end of the political spectrum simply because they belong to an opposing group.”

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This trend is troubling, researchers say, because it suggests “polarization does not just influence people’s opinions about the parties, but also how they view ordinary Canadians.”

Thomas says this is happening in the U.S., too, and points to research that shows political polarization has caused people to adopt an “us-versus-them” mentality.

So how can you talk out political differences without turning Thanksgiving dinner into the first leaders’ debate? The first step is setting pure intentions.

Come from a place of curiosity

You may think your cousin is a tool for his views on tax reform, and that’s OK. But don’t jump into a heated argument with someone just because they have different views than you, says Ottawa-based etiquette expert Julie Blais Comeau.

Instead, approach the conversation from a place of genuine curiosity. If you want to understand why someone believes what they do, ask.

Blais Comeau suggests using prompts like, “Tell me more,” “That’s really interesting, I never thought about it that way” and “Can you give me an example?”

By using neutral language, you are not coming across as combative. This helps promote healthy discourse, Blais Comeau says.

Use evidence, not emotion

If you’re going to talk politics at the table, educate yourself on issues and be prepared to back up your points. Insults and below-the-belt remarks do not move conversations in a productive manner.

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“Present evidence and try to have a dispassionate conversation,” Thomas suggests.

“Ask people to explain why they feel a certain way to get them into a position where they consider they might not actually be correct.”

This tactic does not always work, Thomas says, especially if someone holds polarized views. When it’s clear you and another person are not getting anywhere, take a step back and regain your cool.

Don’t take things personally

It’s easy to say and harder to do, but try not to take someone’s political views personally, says Blais Comeau.

“People take very personally because what they feel is being ‘attacked’ are their own beliefs and values,” Blais Comeau explains.

“So if we’re going to talk about politics at the table, we should approach it from a fact-based point of view and we should definitely keep context in mind.”

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Thomas also suggests pivoting the conversation when it’s heading in a direction you find offensive.

“Try to find some common ground or pivot so that people can talk about a general issue without it necessarily being partisan versus partisan,” she says.

Know when to walk away

If you know a certain family member is prone to taking a constructive conversation to a nasty place, you might want to speak to them beforehand. Blais Comeau says ringing up a relative and politely telling them that you want to keep Thanksgiving dinner civil can help prevent fights.

“Set the expectations that you don’t intend things to go into a negative direction,” Blais Comeau says. “Make it clear from the outset that the purpose of this gathering is to be grateful, to enjoy each other’s company and not to start a fight.”

If things do get heated at gatherings, it’s perfectly OK to put an end to the conversation. If your Uncle Jeff does not listen to opposing stances — no matter how well argued they are — you may have to accept that his mind isn’t going to change anytime soon.

In these cases, take the diplomatic “agree-to-disagree” stance.

“Say, ‘I recognize that we’re both passionate, and we can go back and forth on this for a long time, so why don’t we agree to disagree?'” says Blais Comeau.

“Or just put an end to it by saying: ‘You know, that’s interesting. I’m going to have to let that simmer for a few days.'”

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— With a file from the Canadian Press

Laura.Hensley@globalnews.ca

© 2019 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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