7 Tips for Handling a Forced Political Debate at the Holiday Dinner Table

Author’s note: This is part two of a two-part series on being an effective pro-life advocate at family holiday gatherings. Part one is here: 6 Things Every Pro-Life Advocate Needs to Know Before the Holidays.

7 Tips for Handling a Forced Political Debate at the Holiday Dinner Table

In my first article on this subject, I explained that political discussions with extended family are some of the most complicated dialogue situations to navigate due largely to the power dynamics. I also discussed several reasons why the holiday dinner table is not an ideal time or place for persuading people to change their mind about abortion.

But what if your pro-choice aunt does bring up abortion or another political topic at the dinner table and tries to pull you into a debate with her? Here are seven tips for making the best of that situation:

Tip #1: Try to move the discussion to one-on-one

I was talking to my friend Monica Snyder from Secular Pro-Life last week and mentioned that I was working on this article. When talking about how to move the discussion away from the dinner table setting, I really liked how Monica emphasized the other people in the room who may not want to listen in on the conversation:

Aunt Cecile, I think that’s a really interesting question and one I’d like to think about a little. I’m feeling aware of how many other people are here right now, and how emotional this important topic is. They’re being forced to listen to this right now, and they may not feel comfortable with that. Can we discuss this together after dinner is over?

Tip #2: Be aware of how people in the family tend to take sides and proceed with caution

Every single person around the dinner table has a unique relationship with every other person around the table. This can make things complicated really fast. For example, if a married couple hasn’t talked about this issue together before but one of them is engaging you on the issue, be hyper-aware of the body language their spouse is displaying. He or she might be getting really uncomfortable, and a spousal argument may even result if they get upset enough. As Rachel Crawford said as we brainstormed tips for this article:

Someone with tact will understand this complicated dynamic and will proceed with caution, but someone who is obtuse won’t have the foresight to think about this.

It’s not just married couples you need to be aware of. You might be talking to your cousin while your uncle or grandparent may be getting visibly upset with either you or your cousin!

Consider that sometimes people perceive even civil dialogue to be “fighting” if there is disagreement because they are not used to controversial conversations. They may even see you as starting a family conflict, even if you weren’t the one to initiate the conversation. If non-confrontational people are at the table they may be really uncomfortable and emotionally shut down. Others may even try to shut your dialogue down because they are trying to be a peacemaker.

The point is, you don’t want to start a civil war at the Thanksgiving table. Different personality types are ripe for creating tension, so the greater the number of different personality types in the room, the more complicated (and likely to have a net negative effect on the family) the situation becomes. In his book Embracing Love, licensed counselor Steve Benson describes personality and perspective differences as just one of seven common causes of conflict.[1] The other six in his list are cultural backgrounds and experiences, philosophies and values, strategies and goals, expectations and intimacy, desires and needs, and sinfulness and immaturity. No wonder political debates at family gatherings so often result in people fighting with each other!

Tip #3: Make everything you say count

Sometimes you will find yourself in situations where you have occasional chances to be heard, but you won’t have the chance to make long monologues. For example, I occasionally get invited to private meetings or symposia of leaders in the pro-life movement. Sometimes these sessions will have dozens of people attending, and everyone has a lot they want to say. In situations like this, I make it my goal to be as helpful as possible with as few words as possible. I don’t want to be remembered as the annoying guy who droned on incessantly. I want to be remembered as someone who had absolute gold to say the few times that he spoke up. I’d recommend a similar strategy at the dinner table. Expect to get few opportunities to be heard, so don’t ramble. Stay focused and concise.

Tip #4: Point out lots of common ground

Given that a big family dinner is a less than optimal place for this kind of discussion for the reasons I explained in my last article, it is even more imperative that you point out as much genuine common ground as possible. You may not always explain why you agree if it’s hard to get words in, but at least use body language and quick affirmative statements to point out the common ground, as that should help keep the mood from getting too combative. If you haven’t read Steve Wagner’s book Common Ground Without Compromise yet, I highly recommend it.

Tip #5: Don’t get sucked into a debate about Trump

No matter where you stand in support of or opposition to President Trump, you should recognize that he has, at least to some extent, become associated to the pro-life stance. From the pro-choice perspective he is even seen as a representative of the pro-life movement because of some public statements he has made about abortion, including speaking at the March for Life last year. Even if you voted for him or support his administration, you should avoid having the dialogue about abortion turn into a debate about Trump’s politics or character, if the issue you care about the most is abortion. It’s significantly easier to discuss abortion when you aren’t also trying to be defensive of Trump. Furthermore, you shouldn’t feel the need to defend everything he says.

You shouldn’t get sucked into defending things that other obnoxious pro-life people have said either. This is a point that Tim explains fully in this piece, but I’ll summarize the main point. Every group has its annoying fringe element, including the pro-life movement. You’re probably not the first pro-life person that your family members have ever talked to. It’s possible some of them have had bad experiences with pro-life advocates in the past, and they might vent that to you, quoting something they said that you don’t actually agree with. As Tim explains in his article:

There is a natural human impulse to side with and defend “your people,” whether that’s your family, your friends, your political party, people of your religion,whatever. . . . But when a pro-choice person is complaining about obnoxious pro-life people, you need to resist this impulse. You don’t need to defend the behavior of an anonymous pro-life person that was rude to the pro-choice person [sitting] in front of you.

Instead, Tim explains that you should affirm their feelings. Find genuine common ground with what they’re saying, and affirm that you not only disagree with whatever this obnoxious person said but that you would feel the same way your family member does about it. Here are a few examples from Tim’s piece:

“Yeah, it frustrates me too that more pro-life people don’t step up and adopt children. Many do, probably more than you think, and some honestly shouldn’t, but I think you’re right, some of them are being lazy.”

“I’m sorry your pro-life friend yelled at you for voting for Clinton, that was really wrong, and if I were you, I’d be really frustrated too. How are you supposed to have a good friendship with someone that will yell at you over a political disagreement? That must be really upsetting.”

Tip #6: Help Your Family See That You Are Different Than You Were When You Were Younger

This is similar in some ways to what you’re trying to accomplish when apologizing for past behavior, but there’s more to it than that. A good friend of mine noted something that she has found annoying about getting together with her extended family that I certainly identify with, which is dealing with the fact that many family members see you as the same person you were when you were younger. (One of my favorite podcasters, CGP Grey, has noted something similar. Although I don’t remember which episodes he discussed it in, here are links to his two podcasts.)

This is particularly common with people who only see you once or twice a year at most. It’s hard for them to notice the subtle ways in which you’ve matured over the years. That’s often frustrating for me because I’m a completely different person than I was when I was a teenager. As a matter of fact, I’m a really different person than I was even five or six years ago during my work at a previous pro-life organization! I’m embarrassed by some of the things I did then, and if I could do that job over again, there are multiple things I would do differently now. I sort of think of that as a past iteration of me, “Past Josh.” I’ve learned a lot from those experiences and they helped turn me into the person I am today. Now I have plenty of new flaws to work on correcting, and presumably “Future Josh” will be a better man and pro-life advocate than the person I am now. But it would be frustrating if people from that time in my life were unable or even refused to recognize some of the changes that have happened in me since then.

Now, it’s hard to point out this growth to people in subtle ways without it just coming across as virtue-signaling. I think there are cases where if someone is teasing you about your past embarrassing behavior it’s perfectly reasonable to laugh at yourself and comment about how you know that was dumb behavior that you’ve since grown out of. I’ve also occasionally initiated conversations with friends or former co-workers by pointing out areas where I regret the way I behaved, and apologized for it. But in some cases that may be more awkward than helpful, so hopefully people will notice you’re different just by virtue of the fact that you’re acting more maturely.

Now that I’ve pointed this out, it’s natural for you to want other people to think of your character as the way it is now, not how it once was. But don’t forget that this growth is likely happening with your adult family members as well! Try to avoid thinking of your adult cousins as the way they were when they were young. You probably have no idea about the important events happening in their private lives that are forcing growth and change to happen. Don’t let the fact that their posts occasionally show up in your Facebook newsfeed trick you into thinking that you really understand what’s going on in their lives, just as many of your Facebook friends don’t know about many of the important things going on in your life.

Tip #7: Respond carefully to passive aggressive comments

Even if the person you’re primarily engaging with isn’t being passive aggressive, a debate at the dinner table means you have a peanut gallery watching, like it or not. Other less mature (or even hurting) people may make passive aggressive comments attacking your character, which may make you feel like you’re being heckled by Statler and Waldorf from The Muppet Show.

“Well, you would say that, wouldn’t you? Republicans have already shown that they don’t care about women.”

“See, I don’t know about you, but I actually think black lives matter, not just black fetuses.”

“Ha, you talk like you think science matters when you believe every sperm is sacred while denying that global warming is the real threat to humans, you know, the actual persons out here in the world.”

If this happens, I think you have two potentially good options: 1) laugh it off as if they’re just trying to be funny and try to keep the discussion focused on the actual issue, or 2) use this as a good excuse to graciously end the conversation. (If you think you’re obligated to talk to people about abortion for as long as they’re willing to, please read this article about why and how you should end unproductive conversations.)

You know, I really want to enjoy this wonderful turkey dinner with you that Mom prepared for us. Maybe we can come back to this topic at some other time and place? How ‘bout them Cowboys?

There are certain situations where we think it’s better to directly confront someone about their rude behavior, which Tim explains well in his piece, Don’t Be Too Nice. I think this situation is different because the passive-aggressive person will have plausible deniability and can make you sound really defensive if you try to directly confront them about the rude behavior. “What? You’re taking what I said all wrong! Don’t be so thin-skinned! I was just trying to say that I’m really concerned about global warming, and you’re acting all defensive. Geez.” It’s just a lose-lose situation.

I hope that this and my last article will help you love your extended family well this holiday season while being a good ambassador for the pro-life movement.

Endnotes

[1] For further study, please also see Dr. Cloud and Dr. Townsend’s book Boundaries in Marriage, chapter 13.

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The post “7 Tips for Handling a Forced Political Debate at the Holiday Dinner Table” originally appeared at the Equal Rights Institute blog. Subscribe to our email list with the form below and get a FREE gift. Click here to learn more about our pro-life apologetics course, “Equipped for Life: A Fresh Approach to Conversations About Abortion.”

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Josh Brahm is the President of Equal Rights Institute, an organization that trains pro-life advocates to think clearly, reason honestly and argue persuasively.

Josh uses speaking, writing and campus outreach to emphasize practical dialogue tips, pro-life philosophy, and relational apologetics.

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