Talking With Relatives Across the Political Divide

Peter Coleman, a professor of psychology and education at Columbia University and the director of the Morton Deutsch International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution, says it’s also necessary to set the ground rules for what types of conversations you want to partake in with loved ones. He explains there is an important distinction between a debate and a dialogue.

“A debate is a closed process of persuading the other that you’re right,” Dr. Coleman said. “A dialogue is a process of discovery, a process of learning.” If the objective is to have a more nuanced understanding of what’s important to the other person, then Dr. Coleman suggests being an engaged listener to open up the conversation.

Active listening is an important ingredient in any difficult dialogue. Dr. Israel explains that this type of communication involves “listening to understand instead of listening to respond.” She suggests that we repeat family and friends’ responses back to them.

Coming from a place of curiosity can also be helpful during dialogues, she said. This doesn’t mean compromising your own views, but being interested in someone else’s experiences. For example, she suggested a conservative person might initiate a conversation with a more liberal relative by saying, “I saw you post something on Facebook about defunding the police. I’m not sure I agree with that, but I wanted to hear more about what that means to you.”

Elizabeth McCorvey, a licensed clinical social worker based in Asheville, N.C., who was one of the developers of a curriculum designed to help therapists working with clients of color, says discussions are more productive when participants feel less emotionally charged. She advises taking deep breaths before speaking, and using coping mechanisms while the conversation takes place, such as drinking a glass of water or drawing, which may calm your nervous system and help you handle stress. “The less agitated you are, then the less agitated the other person might be,” she said. If the conversation becomes too emotionally distressing, she suggests taking a break and returning to it later.

Grace Aheron, the communications director for Showing Up for Racial Justice, a national network of groups that organize white communities to turn out for anti-racist action, says there are basic principles that should be respected in any conversation about police brutality and protesting.

“That black people’s lives matter is not something that’s up for debate right now,” she said. “There’s a sanctity of human life.” Her organization developed a tool kit to help people engage with specific arguments related to the protests and police violence.

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