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5 Tips for Navigating Political Discussions at the Holiday Table

UNLV Couple and Family Therapy program director offers strategies for when requests to pass the salt escalate into debates on passing tax and immigration reform.
Arts & Culture  |  Nov 29, 2017  |  By UNLV Media Relations
Media Contact: Keyonna Summers, keyonna.summers@unlv.edu or (702) 895-0898
Katherine Hertlein listening to person talk.

Katherine Hertlein, director of UNLV's Couple and Family Therapy Program. (Josh Hawkins/UNLV Creative Services)

As families gear up to celebrate the winter holiday season together, a new Reuters/Ipsos poll has found that the course of U.S. politics is their least favorite topic to dish up at the dinner table. 

Sixty-two percent of those surveyed named politics (over finances, religion, and even family gossip) as the topic they dread most at family holiday gatherings, and 31 percent said they plan to avoid the subject completely. But Katherine M. Hertlein, director of the Couple and Family Therapy Program in UNLV’s School of Medicine, says requests to pass the salt don't have to quickly escalate into spirited debates over passing tax and immigration reform.

Hertlein is an expert on helping people with post traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety and psychosomatic symptoms. Through her program, she works with clients to process their feelings and figure out how to tactfully parse through opposing views on a variety of sensitive issues — skills that may be particularly handy during the upcoming holiday season.

Below, Hertlein offers a few strategies for navigating potential political discord at this year’s family table.

Have realistic expectations

One of the aspects of family conversation that dysregulates us is the unrealistic expectation that family members will share our viewpoints. Part of reducing your reactivity to your family is to recognize what you can reasonably expect rather than setting yourself up for disappointment in expecting something unrealistic.

Adopt a stance of curiosity

Most people expressing their views are not doing so to purposely cause harm. Be curious about one’s stance and ask questions to fully understand their view rather than making statements yourself to keep the conversation going. This will enable you to find areas of commonality, agreement, and potential for feeling and expressing empathy.

Buy yourself some time

When people express views contradictory to your own, we may have a tendency to respond from an emotional rather than a balanced position. Phrases such as “I need some time to think about that; I’ll get back to you” provide you a chance to reflect on how to communicate your message in a balanced and respectful way.

Recognize the value system from which the comments originate

Part of what bonds a family is the shared set of values. While the people around the table may not agree about the way in which something should proceed, you may find that their rationale for their decision is rooted in a shared value, such as concern for children, concern for healthcare, etc. It may also help to consider the motivation behind one’s statements, recognizing that they are not likely intended to create harm but instead reflect good intention.

When in doubt, find a way out

If you anticipate a conversation will move you away from building a relationship and you are unable to maintain a level of psychological distance, consider using physical distance. Develop an exit plan prior to any conversation where you may anticipate difficulties. Having a plan ahead of time that you may or may not choose to use returns you to feeling like you are in a sense of control, and reduces the likelihood that you will seek to obtain control through increasing the volume or intensity of your voice.

Katherine M. Hertlein, PhD, is the director of the Couple and Family Therapy Program in the department of psychiatry and behavioral health at the UNLV School of Medicine. Across her academic career, she has published over 60 articles, eight books, and over 50 book chapters. She lectures nationally and internationally on technology, couples, and sex. Hertlein maintains a private practice in Las Vegas, Nevada.