Becca: Hey everyone, it’s Becca Loux with today’s Moonshine Minutes, and we are joined today by special guest Lindsay Simon, LMFT, who is clinical director and owner of A Balanced Life: Individual, Child and Family Therapy Inc. in South Lake Tahoe. Lindsay is one of Moonshine’s awesome contributors, with a web-exclusive column where she delves into all things wellness during the pandemic.
Lindsay’s specialty is relationships, so we tapped her to discuss strategies for talking to loved ones about politics and contentious social topics, without losing friends or estranging family.
Thank you so much for being here, Lindsay, and for your evidence-based wellness perspective in Moonshine.
Lindsay: Thank you for having me. These are tumultuous times we’re living in, as the country embarks on tough conversations about race, healthcare, and the role of political leadership and government in taking care of its citizens, among many other contentious topics. It’s not always easy to navigate these conversations with loved ones without getting personal, but it’s worth it.
Becca: Yes, it seems tough but important conversations are happening on all levels, from the quarantined family dinner table to all levels of government. Why do you think we are engaging in these conversations now?
Lindsay: Our current political landscape in the U.S. is extremely divisive and is creating distress and conflict in many relationships around the country and the world. This political environment is leading to greater turmoil due to people feeling the need to defend deep core values being stirred up in conversations with friends and family members.
Becca: So, why the focus on maintaining strong relationships during these conversations?
Lindsay: Relationships have been shown to play a large role in our lives on a mental, emotional, and physical level. There is an excess of research demonstrating the importance of relationships. For example, according to a meta-analysis of 148 studies on mortality risk by Brigham Young University, social disconnection is at least as harmful to people as obesity, physical inactivity, or smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day. And joint research by the University of Utah and Ohio State University found that one’s quality of close family relationships can affect endocrine function, immune function, and nervous system activity. This means that poor relationships are linked to leading causes of illness and death, including cardiovascular disease, infectious diseases, and cancer.
Think about your own life, when family or other important relationships are not going well, how much did that affect you? When they are going well, how fulfilled did you feel? We are a social species and are built for connection. When we don’t have healthy, quality relationships, we can get sick both physically and mentally. So let’s learn some ways to maintain relationships regardless of having differing opinions and values.
Becca: So what are some actionable ways to ensure these conversations can be productive rather than divisive?
Lindsay: One of the keys is basic conflict management skills. The purpose of conflict is mutual understanding, which is the pathway to influencing another person. When we attack another or defend our position, this leads to more attacking and defending. When people prioritize being right over understanding each other in conflict, it can mean an end of the relationship or one that becomes very unhappy and distressing.
Becca: Interesting. So the goal of the exchange shifts: when we think of debate, we think of “winning” or “losing,” but your point is that the end game is understanding rather than being victorious. Can you elaborate?
Lindsay: Exactly, seek to understand, not to change the other person’s mind to agree with yours. The key to healthy conflict is the mindset that the purpose of conflict is mutual understanding, not proving who is right or convincing the other person to believe what you believe. Each person has a right to their own value system and belief system, and theirs is different than yours and that’s ok.
One way to mitigate your reactions in these conversations is by learning how to self-soothe. When we feel attacked or threatened in any way, we will get emotionally flooded, stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline get released, our blood pressure and heart rate go up and our thinking becomes black and white. In this state, we will either attack or defend.
This is because at this point our “thinking brain” has gone offline and our “emotional brain” has taken over in an attempt to protect us from the perceived threat. We need to be able to calm our bodies in order to have rational thinking come back online, which is necessary for listening, empathy, and reaching a goal of mutual understanding. So if you find yourself triggered and heated, stop, take a break and calm your body with some belly breathing: three seconds in, four out. Breathe into your belly and out, not your chest, through your nose. Alternatively, or additionally, go for a walk. Once calm, go back to discuss the topic. Go here for more detail on the steps of an adult time out.
Becca: And once you’ve calmed yourself down and feel emotionally ready to have the conversation, how do you recommend communicating your views without getting personal?
Lindsay: I like to use “I” statements. It’s tried and true and it works : Avoid blaming “you” statements. For example, say: “I feel frustrated when you say you support people not wearing masks because I think it is not being socially responsible and putting other people at risk in case you are carrying the virus asymptomatically. I would like to hear your position on this so I might be able to better understand why this is important to you.”
Secondly, be accountable for your part: Other people become much less defensive if you hold yourself accountable for at least part of your role in a conflict. For example, you can say, “You are right, I did say that earlier and now I am saying this and I can see how that might sound hypocritical. Let me explain where I am coming from, or maybe I need to re-evaluate that discrepancy.”
Most importantly, be non-judgemental. Accept the fact that other people have been brought up differently and had different life experiences than you. They have their own value systems and beliefs.
The sooner you learn to accept this reality rather than fight it or try to change it, the sooner you will be at greater peace and have more relationships. Being judgmental of others is a pathway to loneliness. Loneliness tends to be worse than maintaining a relationship with someone who has different beliefs and values than you.
Once you’re not judging, there is room for curiosity about the other person’s perspective. Being genuinely curious will lead to greater understanding. Rather than seeking to convince, seek to understand.
Becca: Do you have specific strategies to recommend to show you’re curious?
Lindsay: Try to understand the WHY of their position. Here are some questions you can ask the other person to get to the reasons behind their perspective: Can you help me understand why this is important to you? Does this stance have anything to do with a past experience or your childhood? Do you have any core beliefs, ethics, or values that are behind your position? Is there an underlying fear or disaster scenario here if your position is not honored? Is there anything else I need to know to better understand your position?
Create a discussion where you take turns being the speaker and listener. The speaker shares their position, the listener’s job is only seeking to understand and can ask questions like the above to get clarity. Once the listener thinks they understand, summarize in your own words what you heard the person share. Then ask, “Did I get that? Is there anything that I missed?”
Then validate their position. This does not mean you have to agree with it, it means you understand where they are coming from given their experiences in life. It sounds like: “It makes sense to me that you get upset around wearing a mask due to your strong beliefs and value around freedom of choice and your resistance to feeling controlled due to the abuse you received as a child.”
Switch roles and the listener is now the speaker. Influence is possible in a conversation marked by listening, understanding, and validating. Attacking the other person’s position will inevitably lead to defensiveness.
Be open to influence. If the other person makes a good point, acknowledge that and be open to changing your position.
Becca: Thank you so much for this insight, Lindsay. I’ll certainly be applying these tips to my own contentious conversations. What’s one last tip you can give to those out there trying to embark on these discussions with loved ones they don’t always see eye to eye with?
Lindsay: Yes, as tough as it may seem in a personal conversation, try NOT to personalize. There are plenty of people who you are close with who have values that don’t align with yours that you may or may not know about. You might be friends with someone who does or doesn’t support a woman’s right to choose and you don’t know it. It’s ok, you can agree to disagree. It’s ok for other people to have different values.
Becca: Lindsay’s full piece is available on moonshineink.com. She recommends seeking guidance from a professional counselor if the conflict is too difficult to manage amongst yourselves. You can connect with Lindsay at abalancedlifetahoe.com. Send feedback about this piece or how your conversations went using these tips to email@example.com.