Talking With Relatives Across the Political Divide

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Since the killing of George Floyd, which set off protests three weeks ago, many families have had tough conversations about race — some with relatives expressing dissimilar perspectives.

Nicki Vleisides and her father, Pondo Vleisides, have long known they held opposing views. Recently, on a five-hour drive for a weekend trip, Mr. Vleisides, a 60-year-old Republican and Trump supporter, told Ms. Vleisides that he thinks the president unites the country better than anyone else. Ms. Vleisides, a 24-year-old Democrat, responded that she considers the president a divisive racist. They then sat in silence for a while.

These kinds of arguments have grown more frequent now that Ms. Vleisides, who had been teaching in France, moved in with her parents in San Clemente, Calif., during the pandemic. Though the discussions sometimes end in yelling, the two say they’re doing their best to have candid conversations with each other.

“These are such emotionally triggering conversations, but the fact is that we’re not going to get anywhere if we’re just pointing fingers at one another,” Ms. Vleisides said.


Nicki Vleisides and her father, Pondo Vleisides, often clash over the protest movement.Credit…Perra Vleisides

Beverly Tatum, a psychologist and the author of the books “Can We Talk About Race? and “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race, says this dialogue is important. “In order to be able to move forward, we have to be able to talk to each other,” she said.

And everybody needs to participate in this work. Dr. Tatum noted that when white people work together to engage with racism in policing and other civil rights issues, it takes some of the emotional burden off communities of color to teach others. “White people educating other white people is necessary and important,” she said.

For those who are engaging in difficult conversations with family members, here are some ways to keep the dialogue as meaningful as possible.

Manage expectations.

It is important to have realistic expectations for those who hold radically different views. Tania Israel, a professor in the department of counseling, clinical and school psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, says you’re unlikely to change someone’s mind after just one conversation. Dr. Israel, whose coming book “Beyond Your Bubble,” discusses strategies for connecting across the political divide, says that being pragmatic helps us avoid feeling disappointed and frustrated by the lack of radical change after a single dialogue.

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.

Practice active listening.

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.”

Take a break if you need one.

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.

Set boundaries.

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.

It’s also important to set limits around language. Ms. McCorvey says this may mean telling family members that using certain words in your presence is unacceptable. “Boundaries can be set kindly, politely and with love,” she said. “If you draw a line and someone continues to cross it, it’s reasonable to distance yourself from that person.”

Keep conversations off social media.

Conversations over social media aren’t likely to create long-lasting change. In a study that was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2018, researchers found that being exposed to opposing ideas on Twitter actually increased political polarization. As a result, Dr. Israel says the most productive conversations take place in person or over video or phone calls.

Remember your own evolution.

Dr. Tatum suggests using the “three F strategy” to share how you came to your own understanding. With this tactic, people use statements with the words “felt, found and feel.” For example, if a family member or friend suggests that police brutality isn’t a systematic problem, you might respond by saying that there was a time when you might have felt that way, but then you found out how often these acts of violence happen to black people. Dr. Tatum suggests using language like, “When was the last time we saw a white person being killed by the police in a viral video? I can’t ever remember seeing such a thing. I now feel it’s important for me to educate myself and speak up when I see instances of racism.”

Unlearn racism together.

Inviting others to talk about racism can also lead to opportunities for families to grow and learn together. Ms. McCorvey explains that working with family and friends to unlearn racism can be both a unifying and difficult experience. But she says that “sometimes things have to break to grow back stronger.”

[Read more: Books on anti-racism.]

For those unfamiliar with the issues driving the protest movement but wanting to learn, Dr. Tatum recommends starting a book club with family and friends, using readings such as “White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo or “How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi to start the conversation.