By Guest Blogger Donna P. Dunlap, MS, LCMHC and owner of a local counseling center 

I remember hearing as a young woman, that there are three things best left out of polite conversation: Religion, politics and money. I thought it was strange but learned these are areas where people hold very different and passionate points of view. It made sense, and as a loyal fan of “Miss Manners” (a newspaper columnist of the day), I decided then to steer clear of these three topics if at all possible.

Miss Manners had a pat response to people making nosey, troublesome inquiries. She would politely ask, “Why do you want to know?” I could imagine someone saying, “What are your thoughts about abortion?” and her asking, “Why do you want to know?” If honest they might say, “Because once I know your opinion, I’ll decide if you are worthy of my regard. Otherwise I may berate you until you either concede or retreat, after which time I will feel morally and intellectually superior to you, delighting in your defeat!”  I’ve used her question a few times but never gotten such an honest answer.

These days fewer political conversations begin with a question.  More often they begin with a declaration, often couched in inflammatory terms.

What to do when the politically incensed messenger is a close friend or family member?

Remember that you can love the person but not their values.  You can hate their politics and keep your opinions to yourself: always a reasonable option!  Sometimes the best way to respond is to diffuse the situation:

~ “My politics are very personal and I find that’s an area of conversation that can turn a good day into a tense and unpleasant one. “
~ “We may disagree and since the chances are about 50/50 that we will, let’s talk about something else.”
~ “I’m not really a very political person.  My interests lean more toward literature. Have you read any good books lately?”
~ “Can we agree to disagree?”
~ “I am willing to talk about it so long as the conversation remains civil.”

And of course, the old standby, distraction:

“Oh look, there goes a bunny!”

Honestly, I don’t mind talking about values and politics because as a counselor, I’m curious about people, their thoughts, feelings and motivations. I know it’s unlikely that I can change someone’s deeply held views because we all have our own reality, born from unique histories and experiences. People who are highly emotional yet uninformed, are not moved by facts, and those who are well informed are not usually moved by emotional arguments. I cherish the rare opportunity to speak to someone who is well informed and not so entrenched in their beliefs that they are unable to consider reasonable intellectual and/or emotional arguments and new facts. An interesting exercise is to play “devil’s advocate” and let each person argue the other’s viewpoint.  It stretches the heart and mind, and forces people to educate themselves, considering all sides of an issue.

When clients ask how to deal with people who assert strong values or political viewpoints they disagree with, I suggest to them that maybe they can adopt more of a “live and let live” approach and see what the person has to say. Expecting the person to support their positions and requiring that they do so in a respectful way. Everyone has the right to set a boundary around the tone and timing or to say,

“I don’t care to discuss politics. In fact, I read somewhere that politics, religion and money are three things that should be avoided in polite conversation.”

Navigating a conversation and navigating a relationship are two very different things. Keep in mind that we are all works in progress. People change and evolve. Political movements change. Love doesn’t have to suffer. It’s worth remembering that family is forever and good friends are precious and rare treasures. I’ve never discarded a friend or family member because they didn’t share my political beliefs.

To the extent that you can divest yourself from being right, from judging people, or blaming others for your discomfort, you can move into a mental/emotional space where it’s OK for all people to exist, to have the freedom to think and to express themselves without fear of being hurt. That is, in “my reality” a good place to dwell.

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