6 Tips for Navigating Political Discussions at the Holiday Table

As families gear up to celebrate the winter holiday season together, a course of politics is likely their least favorite topic to dish up at the dinner table.

But two University of Nevada, Las Vegas professors say requests to pass the salt don’t have to quickly escalate into spirited debates over climate change, impeachment or immigration reform.

Katherine M. Hertlein, a professor with the Couple and Family Therapy Program in UNLV’s School of Medicine, 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 holiday season. Emma Frances Bloomfield, an assistant professor of communication studies at UNLV, has researched how people can better tailor their communication strategies when engaging on issues of the environment and climate change.

Below, they offer 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.

Don’t start the conversation from a point of contention

You don’t want to view your dialogue partner as inferior. It can be problematic when environmentalists or climate scientists are dismissive, or potentially patronizing to climate skeptics. That kind of dialogue can lead to climate skeptics feeling isolated and silenced. You may not agree with the skeptic, but you should still respect the person who holds the beliefs. We must listen, not just for a talking point to jump in on, but to understand the perspective they’re coming from, and what values or identities they feel are threatened by environmentalism.

Go into the conversation with a knowledge-gaining mindset, rather than a persuasive goal.

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.

We must listen, not just for a talking point to jump in on, but to understand the perspective they’re coming from.

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 health care, 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.

Develop Your Personal Philosophy in Four Steps

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We all operate from a personal philosophy, whether we are aware of it or not. When our career is in the helping professions, it is important that we take time to explore this notion of personal philosophy as it relates to our work; and further, as it relates to vocation as an opportunity for self-expression.

Step One – Examine your Personal Lens

Spend some time considering the make-up of your personal lens

  1. Identify values, attitudes, belief systems, personal experiences and assumptions – if you completed the self-reflective exercise in the previous blog, draw on your responses for this part
  2. What theoretical frameworks, ethical guidelines, and best practices form the foundation of your particular profession?
  3. What is the essence of the experience you hope to create for yourself?
  4. How can you engage in meaningful contribution
  5. Think about your personal style – your approach – how you do what you do in your unique and creative way.

Step Two – What Motivates You?

What are your personal motivations for working in the helping professions? What is your Inspired Intention? Here are some questions to guide your process:

  1. Did you experience a sense of calling, so often common amongst those who enter into a service vocation? If so, do you still feel called?
  2. Can you differentiate between an intrinsic (internal) motivating force and an extrinsic (external) one? For example, curiosity about others might be considered intrinsic in nature, while collecting the pay cheque would be an extrinsic motivator.
  3. What aspects of your work make you feel like jumping out of bed in the morning ready to dive right in?
  4. What motivators are most powerful for you right now? What motivators will likely be most powerful for you over the long haul?

Resist the urge to judge any motivating factor as right or wrong, good or bad. Embrace all the elements of motivation as a valid component of your experience. Some motivators will hold more power for you than others and will provide a wonderful source of information and learning for you as you reflect upon them.

Step Three – Draft Your Statement

Take all the information you have gathered in the exercises above and draft your personal philosophy statement. This is a living statement – you aren’t carving anything in stone! Here are some tips to help you with the process:

  1. Write your statement in present tense. For example, instead of saying, “I want to find opportunities to contribute in meaningful ways,” try “I have many opportunities to contribute in meaningful ways everyday.” Write and say it like it already exists.
  2. Use “I am.” These two words are very powerful so be sure to follow them with the purest intentions of what you wish to create in your life. Again, no “trying” or “wanting.” Focus on “being” and then “doing.”
  3. Ensure that you most deeply held values and beliefs at this time are reflected in your statement. This creates alignment and is very powerful.
  4. Focus on essence and experience as opposed to thinking in terms of a particular relationship, job position or employer, for example. Consider those elements that will make your experiences meaningful for you on a personal level.
  5. Seek congruence in your statement between your personal and professional life. Your personal philosophy statement is something that can guide you in all aspects of living.

Step Four – Live it Out Loud!

Bring your statement to life – live your mission in a conscious manner.

  1. Reflect daily on your statement and consider the ways in which you are living your philosophy and the ways in which you are challenged to do so.
  2. Refine your statement as you see fit and use it as a means for maintaining personal integrity in all aspects of your life.

Let’s get started!

Declare your Personal Philosophy Statements out loud right here!

What If Attitudes Don’t Really Matter In Creating Change?

Attitude is everything, they say. What if I said, I don’t think so? Consider this, as long as it remains inside my head, my attitude means nothing. It’s only when I speak it, or act on it, that it begins to matter. Let’s say I hate orange. Until I start insulting people for wearing orange, destroying orange things that aren’t mine or, if I’m influential enough, I stop people from wearing orange or making orange things, no one knows I hate orange.

An orangeEven if I love orange, no one knows until I start favouring those wearing orange, smashing others’ stuff that isn’t orange, and insisting everything has to be orange. A lot of time and energy goes into changing attitudes, believe me, I’ve done it for a living.

What happens when we look beyond the attitude to its outward manifestation such as written or spoken language, actions, and behaviours? What if we recognise that it’s what we say and do that matters, not what we actually think?

A new question then arises: What governs the connection between attitudes, words and behaviours? Based on books I’ve read and a workshop I did in 2013*, I suggest three things impact attitudes:

  • Information
  • Experience
  • Values

For the sake of simplicity, let’s keep with the orange example.

Information

If I am given some information about orange, like it’s scientifically proven to make people like me more, I may change my attitude about it. Or I may still dislike it, but think twice about banning orange t-shirts. This example depends on my ego, which we’ll touch on more soon.

Experience

If I go to an orange-themed party and have a wicked time, I may give orange the benefit of the doubt, whether or not I change my mind about it. If the party was lame though, I’ll probably blame orange over my poor social skills.

Values

By far the most impacting influence on whether I speak or act on my attitude about orange are my values. Values are like meta-attitudes that pervade all aspects of my worldview. If an attitude is a roof, my values are the sky.

If my values are negative and anti-social — individualistic, ego-centric, self-gratifying etc — I’ll more likely respond to my anti-orange attitude in ways that serve me rather than the common good. I’ll slag off your orange t-shirt and ban anything orange, just because it suits me.

If, however, my values are humanitarian — generous, collective, harm-preventing etc — I’ll think twice about commenting on your orange t-shirt. Sure, I may not like it but it’s not hurting me, but putting you down may hurt you. Perhaps I’ll ask you if you’ve ever considered wearing green. I’ll let orange have its place and avoid looking at it unless I absolutely have to.

Real life examples

A couple of real-life examples may help to test the validity of this consideration — which, by the way, I am just considering, by writing about it. I may end up disagreeing with myself

Gay marriage legalisation

Some would argue that the legalisation of gay marriage has been helped by a change in attitude about sexual orientation. It may have, but I think two values made more of an impact than attitude. The first value was “equality”, the lack of which became more and more obvious as the issue was pushed politically. The second value was that of “legalised monogamy”. Together, equality and a right to legal monogamy were the values that helped gay marriage become law, not a change of attitude towards people’s sexuality.

Workers with disabilities losing their jobs because of KFC’s restructuring policy

It’s easy — and perhaps slightly simplistic — to argue that Kentucky Fried Chicken have suddenly developed a bad attitude towards disability. Were that so, they would have never employed disabled people. The driver behind this policy change is values, not attitude. The KFC policy for all staff to be capable of all duties is based on a value, after which they’ve named the policy — “all star level” staffing. KFC are acting on a value that all employees need to be equally capable of all tasks. This will impact on more than just disabled employees.

So what?

The danger of turning to attitude as the cause of unfair behaviour misses the deeper values-based motivation behind what we say and do. It also allows people to legitimately dismiss a conversation about change, based on a possibly very true defense that you are incorrect about their attitude about something.

Next time you think you’ve uncovered a bad attitude that needs changing, you may want to consider instead a deeper discussion — one about values and how they influence what is said and done.

* The book that influenced my thinking is Influencer: The New Science of Leading Change. The workshop was run by Altris Ltd.

Welfare: The Business of Misfortune

Corporate Welfare vs Social Welfare
Corporate Welfare vs Social Welfare

I’ve dreamed of one day moving home again to have my future children surrounded by their family, but I also fear living with those who constantly reject my deepest held values with the continued disinterest in my chosen career as a social worker.

The fact that many people receiving public assistance work harder in a day to keep their families safe than some work in a lifetime has been turned into a misleading truth equating most welfare recipients to lazy blacks or people who don’t pay into the system.

It’s not the abandonment of the sense of patriotism and responsibility towards our fellow Americans that has me up at night writing about these concerns. However, it might be the fact that most of our tax monies don’t even go toward welfare programs, yet this tends to be the only focus from conservative leaders to control federal spending.

“The Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Havard University published a study entitled “The Welfare Queen Experiment” in which Black and White participants watched news clips about a “lazy welfare recipient” named Rhonda. Separate test groups watched news stories that showed a photo of either a black Rhonda or white Rhonda for a few seconds. Each group was also given a survey to measure attitudes toward race, gender and welfare.

White participants showed a 10% increase in anti-black sentiments when Rhonda was Black and surprisingly, an increase of 12% when Rhonda was White. This suggests that the Welfare Queen archetype and the distorted view of Black Americans on welfare is well-entrenched in the White American psyche. The majority of welfare recipients are non-urban and White. The majority of food stamp recipients have jobs or are children, so comparing paychecks to food stampsmakes no sense.” Read More

When I see anti-welfare and anti-government memes being shared by my loved ones, I wonder do they know what I do for a living and what I’ve committed my life to? Do they understand how I’ve sacrificed, at times, my own financial and mental well-being to be a social worker?

Social workers are consistently ranked among the lowest paid and most depressed professionals in our community. Do they care? Posted and re-posted on Facebook by my parents and others who love me, I think how disconnected it is from my reality.

When I was in school pursuing my MSW, it was made possible by welfare and a Stafford Loan which helped me obtain my bachelors degree. I often had professors who talked about working ourselves out of a job, and the idea that our goal as social workers is to cure the ails of society. No children abused, no family hungry, no woman raped, only then would our profession no longer be needed.

Until that time comes, there will be a collection of inspired hearts whose basic promise is to fight to the end for the most vulnerable of our brothers and sisters. I guess you could say we’re in the business of misfortune. Sounds like a dirty job, but it’s not. I have no shame in saying that I make a career out of working for the lesser blessed.

As far as my family, I’d be honored if they tried to figure out why welfare jokes don’t make me laugh. Although I may not explain what I do at family dinners, my work as a social worker matters especially to the people you’d least expect walking into that clinic, hospital, advocacy agency, or human services office. We’re all grateful public services are there when it’s our time to ask for help. Anyone drawn any unemployment lately?

Until I come to terms with my family’s values, I live away with a supportive partner, sisters who try to understand, and supportive friends. Most importantly, I respect the communities that need our help whose needs give me purpose, whose resilience inspires me, and whose empowerment pays my salary.

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