UW Graduate School

December 18, 2017

Lauren Fine: Talking politics with family (and not losing your cool)

Lauren Fine“Listen, and listen more than you talk,” says Lauren Fine, a doctoral student studying political communication at the interpersonal level. It’s good advice, generally, but it’s especially prudent if you’re struggling to discuss politics with family or friends at holiday gatherings.

If you’re engaged in political discussion with close others in close spaces, “try to ask questions to understand not just what your family members think, but why they think that,” and understand the core values motivating their beliefs, Lauren says.

“We like to think we’re these very rational creatures, but we’re not,” she explains. “We have emotional, value-based reasons behind our beliefs. I’ve found if you can get someone to tell you about their values, it’s a lot easier to understand their beliefs.”

Another strategy for communicating with family in political discussion is to use “I” language instead of “you” language.

“In my research about political communication on Facebook, the conversations that are the most volatile are the ones where people say things like, ‘How could you think this?!’ And, ‘You’re so wrong!’,” Lauren says. Conversations tend to be more civil when people focus on telling their story, instead of telling the other person why they’re wrong. “It’s a less conflict-based approach, and more about having a conversation, because you’re family, or you’re friends, and you care about each other,” she says.

Finally, Lauren reminds you to keep some perspective. “Your family’s and friend’s political beliefs are not the only thing about them,” she says. “I think it’s easy for us to get caught up in the moment and let political disagreements ruin our holiday because we’re just so frustrated with someone.” This doesn’t mean to avoid politics all together — it can be constructive to engage in these discussions — but don’t let political conversation dominate your holiday.

Even if you don’t convince anyone to believe as you do, these conversations can still be constructive. That’s because “once your friends and family know you think differently than they do, chances are they’re going to be more open to seeing that somebody who believes differently from them is not necessarily a bad person,” Lauren says.

She relates this to the theory in political communication of “the spiral of silence,” which occurs when people think everyone else believes a certain way, so they don’t express their view, even if they think differently from the perceived-norm. There may be other people who hold the same dissenting view, but that view is never aired.

“I think this is a natural human tendency,” Lauren says, “but I think it’s something we should try to combat.” By expressing your political view — even if it may be unpopular among your family and friends — you can help break the spiral of silence, and that can make people more open to sharing and hearing different opinions in the future, she says.