First off, I am not sure that both those terms belong in the same sentence. It can be difficult to talk to friends who have different political views at this time in our country, no less “loved ones” where there is an emotional and long-standing bond. There are often conversations, disagreements and raucous arguments about politics between loved ones at family gathering. Someone would always bring it up. I can remember hearing Aunt Margaret telling her husband not to mention anything about politics during dinner. He never listened though there would always be a heated discussion about some political issue. At that time, there was more teasing, bantering, egging someone on – not the angry, hostile and sometimes mean back and forth that we have seen erupt lately.
I thought I would tackle this conversation because I truly believe it is one worth having. Not that I am recommending having that difficult and upsetting discussion with a loved one; rather I want you to know the dynamics that are taking place so that you have a better chance of a positive outcome. If it’s a good friend, there are often ways of avoiding the topic… or just agree to disagree and not broach the subject. When the person is a close family member, it stirs up an awful lot of family pride, history and loyalty. How could this person whom I love and have had close and warm feelings about in the past, who was brought up in the same loving environment as me, with similar parents, same aunts and uncles and generational figures, have such core beliefs that are so different from mine? It goes very deep and sometimes the feelings are really unavoidable. When that is the case, this is an approach that might be worth considering.
The most important thing to remember whenever you run into stress or upset, is to ask yourself a very simple question: “what is my intent?” If your intent is to change their mind, or make them wrong, I would recommend not starting the conversation. You can pretty much predict the results. Nobody wants to be told how wrong you think they are and how they should change their thinking. You can prepare for a battle; you already know your intent.
On the other hand, if your intent is to increase closeness, understanding and affinity for your cousin, sibling or uncle, you could take other options. You know that your intent is to be closer to them after the discussion then before it started. I would begin by trying to understand rather than be understood. So first, start by examining your emotional involvement with the issue. Why is this issue (pro-life/choice, racial injustice, gay rights, affordable healthcare, etc.) such a hot button or a charged issue for you in your life? You’re the one who has the burning desire to change someone else’s mind.
The source of the anger and upset is usually so strong that you can taste it. It’s not a political issue to you it is an emotional issue. It goes to your very core. Look around your family tree, try to find an emotional issue that has been present, not often spoken about, but has existed for many years. Let’s say attitudes towards gay rights.
You will have to find your own, personal, hot button issue. I am going to use a gay rights example to try to help you see how to proceed to discover the underlying source that is causing your own personal, emotional upset. In this example, Joan’s Uncle Sam is active in politics, an elected official, promotes an anti-gay agenda, votes that way, and also acts the role of an upstanding Catholic. However, she knows that he was part of an abortion a few years ago; yet he campaigns for pro-life. You will see him at Christmas. This will be the first family gathering since your gay son is out. In the past, you never really took a position on gay rights, you remained pretty neutral while your uncle was doing all the righteous bashing. Now, you think you will explode because he is so anti-gay and a lawmaker who can endanger your son.
In this case, you were able to uncover the source of your anger. There was a very strong emotional trigger in your family history that was driving your need for a conversation to not only change your uncle’s stance but prove him absolutely wrong! You realized that you were living with a – “How can you not see who I am Uncle John, my situation, my values and understand whom I am now? I want you to respect and accept me, my son and our new situation? Joan discovered the source of her anger and was now prepared to consider the next step. The work that needs to be done here is not getting angry, blowing up at her uncle or changing his position. The work that you have to do, only if you want to continue to have a relationship with him, and you have no obligation here, is to grieve the loss of that initial, early relationship with your uncle; it probably entails a lot of sadness and tears. That relationship probably meant a lot to you back then and it hurts to see how it has changed. Most people, unfortunately, would rather be right then go through the difficult work of grieving. You need to grieve the loss of the first relationship with your uncle before you have any chance of establishing a new relationship, on different grounds, with different understandings. It is not getting angry at the other person’s views and positions but rather being able to go through your enormous grief and loss at their not understanding something that is so central and important in your life. You loved him. Your life situations have changed, and you are unable to reconcile his stance or attitude with your present life situation. The loss of that relationship with him will be very upsetting to you; but, you haven’t told him the feelings behind your new situation. You are afraid if you become vulnerable and have a conversation with him that he won’t care and that will crush you even more.
The reason that you have what feels like uncontrollable anger… the “I don’t understand, I can’t comprehend how you can think that way, so contrary to my beliefs and thinking… is because it is being driven by an unexpressed emotional issue for you. In the example that I used, Joan discovered what the source of her emotional issue was; that was a big first step. Only then, however, could she decide to pursue it to the point of a conversation with her uncle with whom she wanted to have a deeper understanding and a more compassionate relationship. It isn’t healed with one conversation; it is only the beginning. So, you really have to want to do the work in order to heal the situation.
The two most important things to remember from this article are: one, always understand what your intent is before you start an important conversation and, secondly, when you are feeling upset, betrayed, misunderstood by a loved one, when you feel like your buttons are being pushed, know that, there is most likely an unresolved emotional issue from your family of origin that is causing the pressing, emotional upset.
Let’s continue the discussion below