A family therapist has the tools for you and your loved ones to survive the next few weeks
By Charles Duhigg
“Jesus himself would have to come down for me to vote for Joe Biden,” Shannon’s mom told her on a recent phone call. Shannon, who lives in North Carolina, didn’t know what to say. Growing up in a conservative household, Shannon understands her parents’ support for Donald Trump, but since she no longer agrees with their politics, she finds it impossible to have a pleasant conversation with them. On a recent episode of How To!, Bill Doherty, professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota, and co-founder of the nonprofit Braver Angels, shares tips for navigating fraught political conversations with loved ones—a survival guide for both sides of the aisle. This transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Charles Duhigg: Shannon, tell me about your parents.
Shannon: They are very intelligent. They’re very passionate. And they’re good people—funny and caring. My mom has been volunteering with the Republican Party in her hometown for 20 years now. But they would rather just sweep things under the rug instead of potentially having a disagreement about anything.
Growing up in an evangelical Christian household in Pennsylvania, I was taught that there were those who were Republican and then those who were wrong. I was raised by a lot of those traditional Christian philosophies of marriage is forever between a man and a woman, and all of these things. I remember in middle school and high school, I would get into such feuds with my classmates over these things because I just believed so passionately that there was only one way to think. And I refused to even consider the other side.
But then I got married to a man who has very different ideologies than I was raised with, and I started changing. [Recently, I took a second job delivering pizzas after my husband lost his job because of the pandemic.] There was this duplex that I passed almost every single day and there’s always a giant Confederate flag flying outside of it. One day I delivered a pizza to the other side of that duplex—the one that didn’t have the flag—and it was a Black family with three young kids. It just really got me thinking about how they live their lives every single day, knowing that the people that they share a wall with proudly fly that flag. That brought it home—this is in my neighborhood, this is in my community. I have to engage in it and use my voice in any way I can. [But from the very start,] I was met with a lot of resentment and discouragement from my parents, and slowly, this rift has started to develop.
Charles: Does it make you sad not to be talking to them?
Shannon: Honestly, it makes me sad when I see other people who have these wonderful relationships with their parents, where they can talk about all of these issues, either they agree with them or they can talk about things that they disagree about, but they can go on with their lives. It just doesn’t feel like we’re there anymore. One night they were down for a visit and we were just drinking a little wine out on the porch. And my mom said, “Do you like gay people just to spite us or do you actually think that that’s OK?” And I just was like, “I want to love people. I want to be known for my love and I want to show them what that looks like.” My parents kind of walked away from that being like “whatever, the liberals got her.”
I felt like they didn’t care that I had spent all this time thinking and learning and trying to be a better person. It felt like they didn’t think that I had the intellectual capacity to make these decisions myself, that I had just been brainwashed into accepting this ideology.
Charles: Bill, how did you first get started applying family therapy to conversations about politics?
Bill Doherty: [After Trump’s 2016 election,] I got a call from a colleague of mine in New York City who had been talking to another colleague of ours in Southwest Ohio. New York City and Southwest Ohio voted very differently. They decided to get 10 Trump voters and 10 Clinton voters together for 13 hours over a weekend in December 2016. I said, “That’s pretty brave. What were you thinking of doing with them?” And they said they didn’t know, but they thought I could figure out what to do with them.
[So I created some workshop formats.] I’ll give you an example. It’s called a fish bowl, where one group is sitting in the middle with a facilitator. The other groups sit on the outside. The group on the outside is just there to listen, to try to understand the group in the middle. The first question we ask: Why are your side’s values and policies good for the country? And then the second question: What are your reservations or concerns about your own side? That’s the humility question. Then the group on the outer circle comes into the inner and they switch. Afterwards, we ask, “What did you learn about how the other side sees themselves and did you see anything in common?”
The big fancy goal [of Braver Angels] is to depolarize America, to bring “Reds” and “Blues” together, not necessarily to all become “Purples,” but to treat each other as human beings and see if we can run this country better. We talk about achieving disagreement—achieving disagreement means you actually understand what you disagree about because you understand the other side on their own terms, how they see themselves.
So a question I’d ask you, Shannon, is what values did your parents teach you that are still with you? What did they teach you that’s in your political views right now?
Shannon: Wow. That’s a really good question. I think hard work is one. Putting in the time to support your family in the way that you need to and, um …
Bill: Well let me suggest one—you care passionately about the larger world and being somebody who helps it be better. When you talk about, you know, the needs and perspectives of people who have been marginalized in this country, you do that with passion and conviction and values.
Shannon: Yes, that’s very much like me.
Bill: Yeah, that’s you. And when I listen to you describe your parents, if I step back from the particulars of their views, I hear people who are passionately engaged in the world and want to make it a better world. The ways to make the world better have diverged a lot, but I hear a common value. I want to urge you to think about the subterranean level of commonality there, as opposed to only reflecting on the differences.
Another thing is most parents desperately want to feel approving of their kids. You do not want to imagine a future in which you feel like what the heck happened to my child? What I’d like to invite you to think about is the possibility that your evolution in a different direction has left them feeling maybe like they failed in some way. Here would be a thought experiment: Imagine your children grow up and at some point they marry somebody who is more conservative. Someday they look back on the glory years when Donald Trump was president, when there was a chance for America to become great again. Hold on—I know your blood pressure is going up now, but I’d like you to imagine that conversation. Then imagine how difficult it will be for you not to go, “What? What did I teach you?” That would be difficult, I imagine, for you to have your your own children become deeply conservative.
Shannon: Oh, man, this is definitely putting it in perspective. It would feel like I had failed.
Bill: That’s right. So if it’s possible for you to have empathy for how bothered and threatened they are as parents, that may make it easier for you to engage them differently.
So I’m gonna tell you the iron rule of family communication about politics: Do not try to change another family member. Jesus is probably not coming down to tell your mother [to vote for Biden]. And that’s the only person who could change her. Adult kids have little to no direct influence over their parents’ core values, philosophy of life, political values, those sorts of things. The starting point would be to give up any efforts to change their minds in any conversation. There are lots of ways to improve the world and change the world that are different from trying to change my loved ones with whom I have very little leverage. So what I’m saying is completely consistent with being an activist.
Charles: I hear what you’re saying. I think about the times I tried to change my own parents’ minds and they have just been total failures. But then there are some times that I want to tell my parents who I am not because I want to change them, but because I am trying to share with them in an honest way who I am.
Bill: Yeah, the key to healthy relationships between adult family members is to respect the right of others to have their own views. I want to let them know how I see the world, but to not have a hook at the end of that that says, “Don’t you get it?” So let’s come back, Shannon, to your actual situation where your mom said, “Are you interested in the gays just to get back at us?” Let’s role-play—you’ll be your mom and I’ll be you.
Shannon: OK. So do you really care about the gays or are you just thinking that to spite us?
Bill: Where are you coming from right now? What’s on your mind? Could you tell me?
Shannon: Well, I saw that you had posted that thing on Facebook and I mean, that’s not what we raised you to believe. So it’s just shocking to me that you think that’s OK.
Bill: Yeah, OK. So I appreciate your telling me straight up that what you saw on Facebook and that it makes you feel like, what the heck, who have you raised here?
Bill: OK. So what I’ve just done, I’ve just done two things. One is that I took a question that was not really a question—this person wants to tell me something about what they think. If I answer the question, I’m just accepting the bait. And so if it’s not a question, I basically say, “You go first.” And then what I did was paraphrase back what you were saying—I said, “I hear you. That really bugged you. I get that. I get that it really bugs you.” Period. So it’s like you don’t deserve to hear me say something if you’re going to attack. I want to know if you’re open to talking.
Shannon: Wow, that’s an incredible tactic because it’s like, do you want to talk about this or do you want to fight about this?
Shannon: Bill, I’m looking forward to having you over for Christmas dinner to facilitate this in person.