Antidote to Holiday Dread: How to Communicate Across the Great Divide

Are you dreading the holidays given the current political climate? Are you anticipating conflict ruining your family fun? If so, this article is for you!


Background: On November 8, 2016 WLG consultant Jim Rappaport was watching the election with David Braham, American Regional Director of Campden’s Family Office Conference. Jim and I had just put the finishing touches on “How to Effectively Run a Family Meeting” that we would be giving two days later to the family members of family offices attending the conference from around the world. As the election results came in, Jim and David agreed that we had to modify our presentation.


We all recognized that the families at the conference would benefit from a more intimate, meaningful conversation about how to communicate with loved ones who hold different political views, especially when perspectives are divisive and emotionally loaded.


We shifted and added new slides addressing ways to bridge divides across generational and political lines. We provided some useful recommendations that can be applied during informal family gatherings as well as during structured family meetings if emotional sparks start to flare.


A number of attendees requested further support to decrease their holiday dread, so we wrote up this detailed, researched list of recommendations we hope you find helpful as well.


Grant legitimacy to each others’ perspectives. Choose curiosity and being open over being right and alone. If we can loosen our grip on our opinions and our need to be right, we can gain richer layers of complexity and depth in our experiences with each other. When we hold on to being certain about our positions, we invite argument, disagreement, and debates that typically end in resignation and disconnection. If, on the other hand, we are able to bring genuine interest, curiosity and caring about what the other person cares about, our relationships become safer, stronger and more aligned, and we can build resilient connections that allow us to weather storms when we disagree and when the stakes are high.


With regards to the 2016 election, there are literally tens of millions of people in this country who voted for a candidate that tens of millions of other people found reprehensible and unsupportable.  It is important to understand that these people voted in good faith (though we may disagree, and disagree vehemently)  and in a manner that fits their story at the time of the voting.


Instead of arguing about who is more right about their position, you can use this conversation as an opportunity to find out what led the other person to make that decision that seems so incomprehensible to you.  It might amaze you. You might learn something about the other person and how people with a different perspective from yours may think and feel. And, you might discover that you share some values that are very similar.


Connect with shared values. All our emotional reactions are set in motion when we are afraid that something we care about is in jeopardy. We shift out of a loving, neutral, respectful mode when we become fearful that a value of ours is being disrespected. We are passionate about our stance because we CARE about it. Ideas and ideals that we value dearly are at stake. When we have a conversation about those values, we have the opportunity to connect on a significantly deeper level.


Consider this real-life scenario Jim Rappaport experienced at the Campden conference, when he found himself in conversation with two women about the election. The thirty-something inheritor who was an avid Clinton supporter expressed her anger about how Trump treats and speaks about women and her outrage about how any woman could have voted for Trump. The other woman, a spouse of a wealth creator, countered by pointing out how Hillary had attacked women while she enabled Bill’s reprehensible behavior towards women in ways that she found unacceptable.  The women would have continued along this vein (where the best possible outcome is to agree to disagree), until Jim became curious and asked to explore together what mattered to each of them when it comes to women being treated disrespectfully, and how they felt women and men need to respond. They had a much more enjoyable conversation, learned more about each other, and were able to connect more easily as a result.


Connect heart to heart. Imagine now, if a participant had taken the conversation a step further and made it more personal. What if a conservative father asked his liberal daughter about how she wanted men to behave towards women. Then, establishing even more of a connection by reaching out a loving hand to her, he could then look into his daughter’s eyes, with love in his, and ask her if she has ever experienced being treated disrespectfully by a man in her life. This is a moment of truth and requires the ability of whomever asks, and whomever else is present, to listen, not interrupt, and continue to breathe deeply as a daughter, girlfriend, wife or other person shares first a little, and then more and more.  


The importance of intentional listening is highlighted by Elizabeth Bernstein in her article in the WSJ:  “Learn to listen. This means no interrupting. No talking over the other person. No obsessing about what you’re going to say when the other person’s mouth stops moving. Spiritual experts call this a form of Divine Listening. It’s the practice of listening without conjuring up your own inner dialogue. The idea is to quiet the rational part of your mind that wants to talk back and to fix the situation. This type of listening allows you to calm down, learn about the other person’s view, and allow him or her to be heard. And therein lies the healing.


If you really want to facilitate some deep healing, you will need another dose of courage and the ability to take direct feedback for your behavior. This will require you to be open to the feedback and to NOT get defensive and to NOT dismiss their interpretation of your actions, no matter how innocent your actions may have seemed to you at the time.  Imagine if that father had the courage to ask his daughter if she had ever experienced him treat her, or other women, disrespectfully? And what if he also asked that she let him know in the future if he says or does something she find offensive towards herself personally, or to women in general.


This approach allows for the deepest level of intimacy and requires a great deal of trust. When done well, this will invite each person involved to connect in meaningful and personal ways that take them out of the political debate and into their hearts. In this scenario, the father connected with his daughter, her values and life experiences, and showed up for her the way she wants men to treat her - with honor, respect, and care. This, and so much more, is possible, if you dare.


A few things that will assist you when considering taking this kind of intimate risk include:


Avoidance. If you have decided to decline invitations and not attend family gatherings this year, you are not alone. Or maybe you were uninvited, like the people quoted by Mary Bowerman in the Chicago Sun Times. The fear of being unable to maintain what what Patrick Lencioni calls “artificial harmony” causes people to avoid confrontation. When we anticipate a contentious argument is coming our way, we choose avoidance over potentially experiencing painful, upsetting and potentially relationship-destroying emotional reactions. If we do not believe we are skilled in navigating these treacherous waters, the wisest choice is to avoid them completely.


The problem with choosing this approach is that we miss out on all the good that is available when being with family, as well as the opportunity to have even closer relationships with each other, as we have shown above to be possible.  Choosing to be together takes courage when people have strongly-held opposing views. Having the skill to stay connected when in conflict is essential for any family that wants to be authentically harmonious for the long haul.


For those of you who want to build your communication skills, and to feel competent enough to jump into the fray, the following approaches will support you and your family in a greater likelihood of a positive outcome...


The right conversation in the wrong mood is the wrong conversation. Nothing can sour the mood faster than politics, except maybe talking about money. Steer clear of these topics when the hour is late and/or when more than a couple of glasses of wine have been enjoyed. If you find yourself engaged in a conversation that is becoming heated, see if you can cool it down with respect, good humor and redirection.  You can let them know you would prefer to continue over a bagel and a cup of coffee (or two) in the morning, when you are all fresh and rested.


Stop reactivity before it takes over.  The reason we dread these conversations is because we do not have a track record of good outcomes. Think about the last time you had a blow-up with a relative. Perhaps you were in the conversation that was going well, and it suddenly changed direction and became heated. Chances are just before your voices started to rise, you may have noticed a shot of heat up your spine, a shiver on your neck, or your “blood boiling.” Research shows we literally have six seconds to stop that reactivity from taking over.


Understanding the physiology behind this reactivity is useful for knowing how to avert it and shift to a more relational response.  Turns out that when we get emotionally reactive (or “triggered”), our sympathetic nervous system kicks in. This “fight, flight or freeze” reactivity dramatically reduces our ability to respond effectively to the situation. It causes us to hold our breath, and to have shallow breaths that do not fully oxygenate our cells, depriving our brain of the oxygen it needs to be able to assimilate, process, and rationally interpret information. The antidote is the parasympathetic nervous system, which decreases our heart-rate and brings us back to state of calm.


The best way to bring calm to the situation is also very simple and easy to access - BREATHING fully and deeply, both inhaling, and exhaling. When we hold our breath, we amplify whatever emotion we are experiencing. Alternatively, when we exhale fully and take in deep breaths, we allow the initial emotional reaction to decrease in intensity and dissipate by activating the “relaxation response”.  This response lets us access a more intentional approach to the situation. “The relaxation response, discovered by the inspirational author and Harvard cardiologist, Herbert Benson, M.D., represents a hard-wired antidote to the fight or flight response. The relaxation response corresponds to a physical portion of the brain (located in the hypothalamus) which—when triggered—sends out neurochemicals that almost precisely counteract the hypervigilant response of the fight or flight response.” Simply put, by breathing intentionally and deeply, you can shift out of fear and back into a loving stance when relating.


Remember that you are safe. The “fight, flight or freeze” reaction happens the moment your body recognizes you are in danger. When you feel that rush of heat up our spine, know that your body thinks you are under attack and could be harmed. Stopping this triggered reaction takes intentionality and mindfulness that is incredibly difficult to access in the heat of the moment. Your best chance to be able to slow things down, and respectfully engage in a healthy dialogue, is to remind each other that you care about each other, and that you want the best for each other (ideally while taking a few deep breaths together). If you don’t feel safe to do that aloud, you can think about, and more importantly, allow yourself to feel, how much you love the other person. Also deliberately remind yourself that they love you too (even if it might not feel that way in the moment).



Finally, laughter really is the best medicine. Last year before Thanksgiving, my cousin’s wife sent out this SNL skit to get us all ready for the fun -- and the inevitable political debates -- that ensue when we all get together. She and her husband are staunch Republicans and he works for the NRA. My father and brother are avid Bernie supporters and anti-guns. When things get heated, we often use good-natured humor and playfulness to diffuse the situation, and when feelings inevitably get hurt, we reach out to each other with peace offerings and love, and tap into our abiding shared value of family first, no matter what our political views might be.


And, when all else fails, there's always Adele.


May you have a wonderful, connected, loving holiday season, and may the joy and laughter outweigh any adversity.

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