Many of you are dreading those conversations around the Thanksgiving and Christmas tables this year. I’ve been there. Fortunately for me, our family has become fairly healthy when it comes to communication these days. We can talk about just about anything. That doesn’t mean things never get tense or that sparks never fly. But we have grown to see conflict as a tool for growth as opposed to an inherently dangerous enemy. Maybe some of you are fortunate in the same way. But if you are, it is because your family, like mine, was open to it, and they put in the work. It takes the entire family wanting to change.
However, many of you are horrified by family conversations. Maybe your family tends to avoid conflict by internalizing it and having only superficial conversations. Maybe your family leans towards a militant and aggressive personality, so they try to avoid conflict by making it about an emotional argument instead of the real issues. Every family has a personality of its own. And it leans in one direction or another. Maybe you want to have a conversation about a controversial topic, but you don’t think it is a safe place to do so because it’ll either be rejected or made into a shouting match. Maybe you are choosing not to go to any family gathering at all this year for a reason given above. It’s just not worth it to you this year. No matter your situation, know that you aren’t alone. I hear you, I see you, and many others do as well. You are very loved!
I’m really interested in this topic, not just because of my own family dynamics but also because I have eight years in church ministry, a B.A. in Biblical Studies, a B.S. in Business, and an M.A. in Organizational Psychology. I’m all about the theory of organizations and how they work from a psychological perspective. That is especially true in a religious context. I love it! However, families are organisms and institutions as well. Organizational Psychology is not the same as Clinical Psychology. On an individual and emotional level, if you need help (and most of us do), seek a therapist. Organizational Psychology applies psychological principles to organisms and institutions. That’s right, groups of people have personalities! Every person in a family institution is a part of the organizational culture and personality of that institution.
Non-Scientific Survey of 70 People and their Opinions Regarding Conversations with Family about Politics and Religion:
I did a non-scientific survey just to get a general idea about where some people’s minds were on this topic. The average participant was 45 years old (ranging from 18-76), and 75% of participants would like to talk openly about religion with their families. However, only 60% of participants said that they feel like their families could have religious conversations even if there are disagreements. Furthermore, 56% of participants would like to talk openly about politics with their families. However, only 50% said that they feel like their families could have political conversations even if there are disagreements. When the participants were asked if their families tended to lean towards a passive or a combative form of communication when situations were tense or conflicting, 52% said that their families leaned towards a passive tone. When asked if religion/politics should be discussed at all in family gatherings, 65% said it depends on the context, 25% said no, and only 10% said yes. When asked if there is often a temptation to skip family gatherings because of poor communication regarding these subjects, 66% said no, and 33% said yes. However, when collecting only the data from those 43 and younger (millennials and younger), 42% said that they often consider skipping family gatherings for the reasons given above. That’s nearly half!
So, How Do We Communicate with Family?
First of all, maybe you don’t have these conversations with your family. Maybe you aren’t emotionally ready for a conversation that leads to conflict because you might become over-stimulated by it. That’s okay! Maybe you avoid the entire gathering for this reason or a similar reason. That’s okay too! Maybe you avoid these conversations about religion and politics because it is difficult for your family to do so right now without losing their heads! Or maybe nobody at the dinner table thinks that the dinner table is the time and place for those conversations. Maybe that’s right! You (and a therapist) have to figure that out. Unfortunately, I can’t answer that for you. Just know that you aren’t alone and that there are communities that want to love you!
But for those who want to have those conversations and think that their family is ready to talk about these things around the kitchen table (I love talking around a table), the rest of this section is for you. Keep accommodative communication in mind. This is about making our language easier to comprehend by someone else. In this context, I’m using it here to suggest that both sides talk with patience, empathy, and intentional listening as the main priority. Talk to understand, not to rebuttal. Furthermore, read the body language and watch your own by relaxing, smiling, and having an open posture. Oh, and don’t interrupt one another! Even if you think you know what they are going to say, really take your time and be quick to listen.
If you need to, set some boundaries such as no yelling, no name-calling, and being respectful when the other person is communicating overstimulation. Look for positive feedback opportunities even if you don’t fully agree. Practice the art of agreeing to disagree. That is a huge one! Remember, this is your family! Another fancy term here, “interpretability autonomy;” consider the context and environment the other person is coming from so that, without necessarily justifying anything, you understand how they got to the conclusion they are at. If you’re a Christian, pray for peace and guidance. Look to Jesus, who listened more than talked, considered the context, and had His own boundaries.
So, How Do We Deal with Bitterness?
Some of us have problems communicating with our families because of bitterness. When I started changing some of my religious views, I became “legalistic about my liberalism” (if you will allow that terminology). I made my mom cry, carelessly broke people’s worldviews, and gave them nothing to replace it with. I just wanted to be right. I was bitter. No question about it. It has been 12 years, and I’m still working through this bitterness and only now getting to a place of peace. I don’t think bitterness is inherently bad. I think God gives it to us to tell us that there is something not right in our relationships. However, if we don’t work through it and let it die, it will grow and change us into something as ugly as the thing we hate. I want to leave you with a few tips on navigating bitterness as you get ready to spend time with family and friends that you might disagree with on political and/or religious topics.
First, and please don’t read this dismissively; reevaluate the situation that makes you bitter. In other words, did things happen the way I think they did? Maybe they did! Maybe they didn’t. I’m not gaslighting you here. You decide for yourself as only you can. All I know is that many times when I feel bitter, I misinterpret how things really happened. Usually, I feel bitter for a good reason. But I usually don’t stay there for a good reason. I usually stay there because I read some subtle thing in the wrong way and convinced my mind that I was justified in doing so. I was probably justified in being angry and feeling betrayed, but I also likely added intentions and motives that were not really there. Try to forgive others as much as you can. And keep in mind that reconciliation is not necessarily the same as forgiveness. I think that God will reconcile all things in the end, but we might not be able to do that on this side of glory. That is something we will have to ask ourselves. But God knows our hearts. Forgiveness, however, needs to happen for us to move on. That doesn’t mean turning a blind eye to injustice. It just means that we realize we all play a part in this greater disease called “Evil.”
Seek support from like-minded communities. There are so many groups online that would love to let you vent. See yourself in the other person so that you can understand them even if you disagree and even if they hurt you. This could take a literal lifetime. That’s okay. And if you are like me, you will fail often. But lean on friends and family and pray for grace. Immerse yourself in the character of Jesus, and be kind to yourself. Take your time. Allow yourself to feel what you feel. See your bitterness as a potential opportunity for healing, finding self-worth, and maybe even reconciliation. Also, look for things to be thankful for. They are out there! Finally, look to Jesus as an example of perfect love. The way He loves enemies, forgives those who hurt Him, and sometimes even takes a break from it all.
*NOTE* Only you can decide if these tips are currently helpful to you and your family. It could be that you and/or your family are not quite able to have these conversations yet. That is okay. You are on your journey. God is with you. We are with you. You’re doing a great job. You aren’t alone. Be kind to yourself, and don’t give yourself more than you can handle. In the meantime, plug into other communities. One private community that is great is a private FB group based on a podcast I enjoy. The podcast is called Exploring Faith Pursuing Grace. The discussion group is fantastic. I will have an episode on the podcast coming out on Thanksgiving Day. I’ll go into more detail on this topic. More resources are below. God bless! – Jesse
Resources Regarding Today’s Topic:
– http://www.psychologytoday.com (professional articles)
– Communication Twentyfourseven (podcast)
– Disagree Better (podcast)
– Love Matters More by Jared Byas (book by former guest)
– Searching for Sunday by Rachel Held Evans (book)
– Private Social Media Communities (like a private discussion group)
– A Licensed Therapist
UPDATE– Take a listen to an episode I did on this subject with Daniel Rogers on his podcast. https://efpg.podbean.com/e/e109bitterness-disagreements-and-those-holiday-conversations-w-jesse-winn/