Family Dynamics in This Election Year

October 26, 2020
Emotions are high as the presidential election nears. BBH Senior Advisor Ellen Perry provides suggestions for communicating with family and fostering togetherness during this intense election season.

“I cannot believe that my brother plans to vote for him!” As we approach this year’s very contentious election, you can hear some version of this exasperation repeated by countless families across the country. No matter on which side of this political divide you sit, and even if you consider yourself someone who tries to “stay out of it,” you are likely to have family members who sit on opposite sides of the divide. The stakes feel high, and the stress, fear and anxieties we are experiencing are real and prolonged. How, then, will we manage our family relationships with those who plan to vote differently this year? How will we hold our family together as we navigate this intense election season?

We have some suggestions:

  • You are unlikely to change the minds, or the votes, of family members who support a different candidate than you do any more than they are likely to change your vote – so don’t try. Assume that we all come to our positions and beliefs through meaningful and varied life experiences.
  • Remember that the emotion underneath anger is most often fear. Many people who are outraged in this moment, and in this election season, are afraid. That knowledge might help you keep your own calm in difficult conversations.
  • Respect different opinions, even when it is very, very hard.
  • Feel free to discuss the issues in this election, but try to listen more than you speak. Ask questions. Seek to understand the “whys” of the other person’s vote. What are the underlying beliefs and experiences that drive their decision-making?
  • Don’t make (or share) personal judgments about your family members. You’ll never have their whole story, nor will they have yours.
  • Look for common ground. Everyone might highly value civic engagement and patriotism, but some express those values in very different ways.
  • If the conversation gets angry and personal, stop. Declare that the relationship is more important than this election. Attempt to redirect the heated and unproductive conversation to nonpolitical common interests. There are sometimes topics that are off limits for good reason!
  • Don’t gang up. If two people are debating the issue, stay out of it. Don’t add your voice if it’s already hot. As mentioned in our first suggestion, you are unlikely to change anyone’s mind.
  • Help young adults respect the differences in the lived experiences of their elders, particularly grandparents. The young can have strong opinions that sometimes don’t fully consider the realities of their grandparents’ youth. Similarly, older adults should respect the opinions of the younger generation, who are growing up in a very different world than they did.
  • Don’t forget that we are in an already very difficult time because of the impact of COVID-19 on our lives. People are feeling anxious and uncertain about so very many things. Try to lean more toward tenderness than judgment.

At BBH, we have experience helping families navigate complicated conversations and relationships. Please reach out if we can be helpful.

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