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5 Tips For Making It Through Politically-Charged Family Gatherings

Martin Carcasson
CSU's Center for Public Deliberation, October, 2013

Following the presidential election, many people found Thanksgiving dinner-table conversations heated. With Christmas and Inauguration Day coming up, those heated conversations are bound to start anew. 

Why do we find ourselves at odds with the ones we love over big issues? According to Colorado State University professor of communication studies, Martin Carcasson, it has to do with how our brains are wired. 

Here are five science-backed tips from Carcasson to help you navigate the holidays in a non-confrontational manner:

1. Our brains are designed to defend against attack.

Carcasson: Our brains crave certainty, and are kind of wired in a way that, especially once we make a decision about big items, to protect that belief and defend it against attack in a lot of different ways.

2. In American politics, the system itself tends towards arguments.

Carcasson: Particularly, a political system that’s a two party system is going to buy directly into that [conflict], so you want to engage people before they have a strong opinion and that’s when they are going to think much more creatively, and see different sides and kind of be open to kind new views, but with a two-party system, people tend to on one side or another.

3. Focus on local issues instead of national politics.

Carcasson: I would argue if people are just really dismayed at national politics, I’m not saying ignore national politics, or give up on national politics, but I think if you put some energy into local issues, and getting engaged in that. You can make a difference in people’s lives, and the good news is, you feel better about people. 

With good process, you spark good conversations and your faith in human nature actually goes up through those interactions, versus, when you are trying to engage on Facebook, or follow on Twitter, or trying to have a really bad conversation with someone who disagrees with you on national things, where people aren’t going to budge that much.

4. People who raise their voices tend to be more biased and less receptive to new ideas. 
Carcasson: In most cases, the loudest voices are the ones that are the most biased — that is why they are so confident — creating even more of a perception of polarization.

5. Listing facts and citing research pushes people further into their own bubble. 

Carcasson: Research has shown, for example, that injecting high-quality information into a polarized dispute tends to lead to even more polarization as each side cherry picks the evidence and dismisses opposing views. They each walk away believing the new evidence clearly supports their position.