My family is split down the middle as far as political perspectives go. Every time we meet up to share a meal we end up in an argument. I don’t want this discord in my family but it seems that tensions are so high, everyone is ripe for triggering. Any advice for keeping the peace at the dinner table?!
First off, thank you for this very topical question. As this is my first of these posts, I chose yours with great care because I think it’s extremely important and relatable. I want to acknowledge you for bringing this topic forth with wisdom and succinctness and for not getting into your own political beliefs. Because while this question may be sparked by the current political climate, it isn’t actually about politics at all.
The way I see it, your family is a microcosm of our society. When we disagree about things we care deeply about, we argue. The good news is that it sounds to me like your family really loves one another because you are arguing about your differences. Arguing is really just a means of trying to get closer to someone. We all want a chance to feel heard and understood, especially by those we love most of all. And it’s frustrating when we fail to connect in that way. But, I do see a light at the end of the tunnel here, both for your family and for society as a whole.
Since you’re the one who came to me and it seems like you have a clear understanding of the bigger picture, you’ll likely have to be the one to take the reins here. This means that you, my friend, are going to have to exhibit patience, empathy and love in doing so. Be prepared to put your ego aside. This also means you’ll likely have to amp up your self-care. I’ll get to that in a moment.
First, I want to point out that you must let go of any expectations you might have for how you think things should be in your family. If everyone is as “ripe for triggering” as you say, there is a chance that what I’m about to offer you may not be well-received. If that’s the case, you must be willing to accept that and put a pin in it or let it go altogether. You are not responsible for the well-being of your entire family, nor can you force people to communicate fairly if they aren’t open to it. So, if you hit a wall, you must be willing to back off or I guarantee you will only make things worse and I really don’t want that for you. But, I think you at least have to try because if we can’t learn to communicate about hot button issues in a respectful way within our own families, we are unlikely to succeed in doing so anywhere else.
Start by telling your family how much you love them and express your desire for equanimity at the dinner table. Take full responsibility for any previous missteps on your part, assuming you’ve made them. If you haven’t then you’re a saint and honestly I don’t know why we’re even having this discussion.
Then, attempt to establish some ground rules for political discourse. This could look a lot of different ways. It could mean that each person gets a designated window of time to speak uninterrupted. Or that the moment anyone becomes judgmental or angry, the conversation ends for the evening. Or that political talk is strictly banned from the dinner table altogether. Establishing a code of conduct in advance that everyone can agree upon is a great way to bring everyone together.
Decide as a family how you are willing to engage in political conversation and then ADHERE TO THE AGREED UPON CODE.
Acceptance is key here. Trying to change anyone’s viewpoint is only going to create more tension and dissonance. And it begins with you. Can you accept that not everyone will necessarily agree, but that you love each other nonetheless? Can you separate feelings and opinions from the person who is expressing them? Even if you don’t agree with someone, can you acknowledge something you admire about the individual, such as their passion, conviction or desire for change? If so, tell them. Finding ways to reach across the table is a great way to remind everyone that at the end of the day you’re still a family and you care about each other.
If this goes well (holy shit!) then celebrate by acknowledging the group for adhering to your agreed upon standards. Maybe even eat dessert together. And if it didn’t go well, perhaps you try again next time. But, remember to let go of any expectations and to walk away if you need to. Only you know your family and what works best for you, so trust your instincts and make sure you’re honoring yourself first and foremost.
This brings me to the self-care that I previously mentioned. I cannot stress the importance of this enough. If you feel triggered at any point, I encourage you to step back and identify the root cause of these triggers and any judgments that you have placed on yourself or any of your family members as a result. If they’re not easily identifiable, I suggest meditating on it or writing freely on a sheet of paper you can rip up and throw away afterward. Allow your feelings to come up without censorship. Ask yourself why you were triggered. What did it bring up for you? What judgments have you placed on the person who triggered you? Do you hold any judgments toward yourself for being triggered in that way? Once you’ve done this, compassionately forgive yourself for said judgments. Say it out loud. Rinse and repeat for every trigger. And then let it all go.
It’s not magic. You will likely feel triggered again and again. But, over time it will get easier. Regardless of what’s going on within your family, it seems to me like you are a powerful force among them. Treat yourself with loving kindness and set an intention for every interaction to come from this place of love. With any luck, it’ll be a matter of time before at least one other person follows suit. Either way, you are a true leader and they’re lucky to have you.