Talking to Family Members About Controversial Subjects

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If family gatherings mean political arguments with a family member and bitter hard feelings that last for months (or if you have upsetting disagreements over any controversial subject with a family member), this article is for you.

YOU HAVE a point of view or a set of facts you want your family member to accept or agree with — or she (or he) has a position she wants you to accept. If you engage in an argument about it, you risk a riff between you, hard feelings, anger, upset, even a complete severing of your communication and a destruction of your affection for each other. This is not good for your mood.

You may have known this family member for a long time — maybe your whole life. So perhaps you believe you should be able to talk about anything with each other. But you might be mistaken about this.

Here's the problem: The more controversial the topic, the deeper the connection between you must be. The "depth" of your communication is measured in recent hours of talking to each other. In other words, if in the last year, you have averaged about twenty minutes a week talking with a family member — on the phone or face to face — your relationship can handle very little controversy. Most of your communication had better be pleasant or neutral (not controversial).

But if in the last year you have spent, on average, many hours a week talking with your family member, your relationship can handle talking about a much more controversial topic.

Think of it this way: Any given power line can only handle so much electricity at once. If more power tries to surge down the line than the line can handle, the line will melt or circuit breakers will melt. A bigger line could handle the surge. A smaller line will fry. In other words, your communication channel is only as big as your amount of communication has made it.

More non-upsetting communication creates a bigger line, a stronger bond, a more robust relationship. A stronger bond can handle controversy better than a weaker bond.

The researcher, John Gottman, looking at what it takes for a marriage to stay together, discovered a minimum ratio: Five to one. A marriage needs at least five times more enjoyable interactions as unenjoyable interactions to prevent divorce. It is possible a similar ratio is required for any relationship.

It is a good rule of thumb anyway to consider that you need at least five times more hours talking about enjoyable topics as controversial. Just to be on the safe side, try keeping it at ten times more. Having a history with your family member is unfortunately not enough. The "power line" between you shrinks with time and lack of communication. A strong bond requires recent communication.

If you're already engaged in a controversy with a family member and already feel angry or hurt by your conversations about it, realize right now that you have been mistaken about each other. You are not in the wrong and neither is the other person. The problem is: The communication channel between you is too small. The problem is not your family member — it is a puny, atrophied communication channel created by a long period of neglect. That's a better way to think about your disagreements because it leads to clarity about what you can do that will effectively improve your feelings about each other. You're suffering the inevitable consequences of a lack of bandwidth. The more you communicate about non-controversial topics, the bigger your bandwidth grows.

If your family member lives in another town or state and you don't see her or him much (or talk much on the phone), you should probably avoid controversy completely. Maybe some day you'll live closer or spend more time talking on the phone. If that happens and you still want to talk about a controversial topic, your bond will be able to withstand it.

In the meantime, reserve those topics only for people you do talk to regularly.

Install this as your personal policy and you will prevent a lot of bad moods and hard feelings. You will find holidays and election years a lot more enjoyable in the long run. And you will both be happier.

One last thing: If controversial political conversations come up between you and anyone on a regular basis, I recommend you read the book, Righteous Mind, and when those conversations come up, start talking about the content of the book. I promise you, it will raise your mood in those conversations. 

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