This holiday season, several people have asked me how to deal with friends and family who voted for Trump. I am an unlikely advisor on matters of civil discourse, as my first language is sass. But growing up a White girl in working-class Memphis, where I received a public school education from smart Black women, in classrooms with mostly Black kids, and tried mightily to practice what Jesus said about loving all the neighbors (not just the White ones), but then returned home every day to friends and family who subscribed to White supremacy, anti-Semitism, and gender norms straight outta The Handmaid’s Tale, I did learn a thing or two about discussing race, gender, class, religion, sexual orientation, and politics with people I love but do not agree with.
Since then, I’ve been refining my techniques as a social scientist who studies how to heal cultural conflicts. So below are a few tips for navigating conversations about politics with your Trump-electing friends and relatives, should you desire to do so. I think you should give it a try, if you have the stomach for it. Many folks are saying that the Democrats lost White working-class voters because the two groups forgot how to talk to each other. I am inclined to believe this analysis, and so I encourage us all to start working on our cross-cultural conversation skills. Bipartisanship begins in the home.
1. Act Like an Anthropologist
Approach the conversation as an occasion to learn how people different from you think and feel, rather than an opportunity to change their minds or hearts. People can smell a missionary a mile away, and they usually don’t like the scent.
Instead, assume the posture of an anthropologist. Ask, who are these people, and why do they think, feel, believe, value, and act they way they do? Maybe you already know some of these answers. Likely you don’t know them all. In any case, just giving the other side a chance to share their heads and hearts makes them more favorable to hearing from your side of the aisle. Plus, you are likely to learn something new.
2. Ask “Why?”
Pursuant to Step 1, ask a bunch of open-ended questions like “Why do you think that is?” and “How did you arrive at that conclusion?” Get ‘em talking. Gently explore all the nooks and crannies of their belief system. “Why” questions are especially useful when you are angry, because they buy you some time to recover.
3. Honor Emotion
Understand that no one, not even you, is wholly logical. Most people routinely make false assumptions, and then clumsily reason from them. Having gone through this fraught and faulty process, we then don’t even use this “logic” to make most of our decisions. Instead, we base most of our decisions on feelings—many of them unconscious. Honor that fact, instead of deriding people for their lack of logic. This means all of us need to
4. Use I-Statements
Own what you think and feel, rather than portraying your thoughts and feelings as incontrovertible facts. That means using I-statements: I think, I feel, I believe, I read, I learned in school, I heard at the beauty shop, etc.
I-statements are particularly good for conveying when and why you are hurt, angry, and scared to people who just don’t get why you are upset. Rather than saying, “How could YOU, a parent of a daughter, vote for Trump? He’s clearly a misogynistic psychopath!” you may get more traction with a statement like, “When a presidential candidate admits to grabbing women’s pussies and forcing them to kiss him, I feel afraid and angry, for myself and for my children.” People can quibble over whether Trump is actually a misogynist, but they can’t argue over what you feel.
I-statements are also good for dealing with divergent notions of the facts. For example, a relative of mine who is a recovering addict recently said that he couldn’t support Clinton because Obamacare pays for marijuana. My first impulse was to respond with something like, “That’s a load of hogwash.” But instead, I said something more like, “Hmmm…that’s interesting. I read that Obamacare can’t cover marijuana because the federal government still considers marijuana a Schedule 1 controlled substance. Why do you think otherwise?”
And then we had a calm discussion about where we get our information and why our sources might disagree and how we could get information we would both trust. Conversations about whose knowledge and sources are more right or wrong, rather than which person is right or wrong, usually go over better.
5. No Name-Calling!
Which leads to my next point: avoid commenting on other people’s fixed, essential, dispositional traits, especially if your judgment of these traits reeks of negativity. In other words, don’t call people names or attack their personalities.
In particular, calling people racists, sexists, or xenophobes will get you exactly nowhere. When people feel insulted, they shut down and cannot listen, even if your scintillating analysis of their soul is both accurate and eloquent. So you just expend a lot of oxygen and effort for nothing—at best. Meanwhile, observers of your tirade will think you are just being mean. Name-calling simply doesn’t change people’s minds or hearts, nor does it warm people to your own way of thinking and feeling.
6. Build Common Ground
Repeatedly affirm your similarities. What do we agree on? What do we share? Many times I have witnessed how identifying seemingly insignificant similarities—Your people are from Pontotoc? So are mine! You are against the apocalypse? Me, too!—paves the way for deeper sharing.
I admit: Other than our common status as homo sapiens, I have a hard time finding similarities with some of the n-word-dropping, climate-change-denying, bitch-slapping, gay-hating folks I know. And of course I might feel more comfortable and righteous if I cut them out of my life altogether. But what if, in my absence, in my negligence, those folks never hear another way of looking at the world? It’s worth it to me to hang in there, find common ground, however shaky it may be, and then build upon it.
7. Check Your Head
Even with the best intentions, people who are different from you can easily get your goat. We seldom express ourselves or listen well when angry. So keep a finger on your own pulse and excuse yourself to get that second slice of pie if you get too irritated. And note that threats to your person entitle you to a fast break for the back door.
I realize that I am writing this from a place of privilege. I am, after all, a well-educated, heterosexual, middle-aged White woman living in the Bay Area. Although Trump’s actions and words offend me to the core and instill fear in my heart for myself and the people I care about, I am not first on his list for deportation, registration, incarceration, or assassination. And so I get it when people who are high on those lists don’t want to engage Trump supporters in an exploration of beliefs and values. But for me, the aim is to use the privilege I do have to make the changes I want to see in the world. Using what I have learned to reach out to my own people is a first step toward that change.