Family politics: Staying civil at the dinner table during a heated election campaign

WATCH ABOVE: For some families, breaking bread brings an unspoken rule: do not utter a single word about politics. But for others, dinner time is prime time to solve the world's problems. Laurel Gregory has more on how, ahead of an election, you can do it without causing a family fight.

Canadian families are digesting hot, spicy and sometimes bitter conversations for dinner ahead of the Oct. 21 federal election.

Sharing a home does not necessarily mean family members share political views. But families can still enjoy a healthy and even productive political discussion over a pot roast and potatoes.

South of the border, Republican Beth Silvers and Democrat Sarah Stewart Holland know all about the fault lines that can exist when politics creep into family meal time. They are the creators and hosts of Pantsuit Politics and the authors of I Think You’re Wrong (But I’m Listening): A Guide to Grace-Filled Political Conversations

Laurel Gregory spoke with the authors via Skype about how Canadian families can stay civil and connected during the election campaign.

Laurel Gregory: Did you both grow up in political families where there was dinner table chat, or did you come into this on your own?

Beth Silvers: We had different experiences here. I grew up in a family where the news was really important. My parents read the newspaper every morning. As soon as cable news became a thing, it was on in our house all the time and so we engaged in conversations about current events constantly. It was never very political though. I have to say that my parents were not very partisan. They talked about every issue on its own terms. They voted very pragmatically and stayed really engaged in what was happening. But it was never through the kind of lens we see in American politics today.

Sarah Stewart Holland: I had more overtly political conversations with my family, particularly my paternal grandfather who had been a farmer and worked for the federal government when I was growing up on a nearby national park. So I heard a lot from him about the working men’s values and which party sort of stuck up for the working man. I have no doubt that my grandfather would be a republican now but at the time he was not. I grew up having conversations with him and with, honestly, primarily the men in my family who were more comfortable talking about politics. I think the women in my family were always trying to shut it down and keep comfortable and calm, but politics was always something I was interested in.

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LG: What ground rules have you recommended to families navigating the world post-Trump?

SSH: One of the big things we always start with is you want to prioritize the relationship. It’s not gonna be a one-off conversation where you’re going to change the person’s mind or really feel like you proved your point or shared your perspective. When we’re talking about family members, this is a long game because we plan at least to be in a relationship with these people for the rest of our lives. So, to prioritize that relationship, to come to any interaction with the focus on understanding that person well, of letting that person work on you, as well as working on them and understanding that there will be another conversation. That we’ll do this again. So the stakes aren’t so high on every single interaction with each other.

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LG: Beth, one thing I heard you mention in another interview was the difference between values and politics and keeping values at the heart. Can you explain that to me?

BS: Yes, well when you talk about climate, for example as an issue, most of the current conversation around climate is being driven by fear, whether it’s fear of what our future looks like if we don’t address climate issues or fear of what our present looks like if we do address them in a big way that’s disruptive to our economy. Fear is not a value, right? It’s an emotion. If we can come together in our families recognizing that we don’t need to leave our dinner tables with a climate and economic plan, we are just people connecting over something important. But if we can name what our values are so I can both care about job retraining and job stability, pension plans — the kind of thing people who have relied on natural resource jobs care about — I can both care about that and be a good steward of the planet. When I name them in that way, instead of, “I care about the climate” or “I care about jobs,” I have a path forward, right? I have some room to be able to engage with other people about what policies further those values and at what speed those policies go and how we prioritize those policies. We get really stuck I think when we just start with that initial, reactive emotion and build everything there without stepping back to say, “What’s really important here?”

READ MORE: Why is climate change still so controversial to some people?

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LG: I’ve heard from people, numerous people: “Oh well, we don’t talk about politics at the dinner table.” What do you think about the complete hands-off approach?

SSH: I would just ask everybody if we think it’s working. Do we think it’s working? Are we happy with the state of our politics? Are we happy with the state of politics and disagreements within our families? We can’t get better at something if we don’t practice it. We can’t learn how to navigate these conversations if we refuse to engage in them. We can’t connect with one another, we can’t teach our children the very valuable skills of learning how to articulate those values, how to share their perspective, if we don’t let them practice.

Sometimes you will leave frustrated. Sometimes you will leave conversations with the people you love most in the world angry. You will feel like you were not listened to. You were not heard. Or you’ll be frustrated because things were pointed out that you don’t want to look at. But that’s how we forge deeper and more meaningful connections with the people that mean the most to us is because we work on each other and bump up against each other and we rub each others rough edges off. And it’s uncomfortable. But if we can’t do it at the dinner table, I don’t know how we think it’s going to happen at the highest levels of our government.

READ MORE: Liberals pledge Canada will have net-zero emissions by 2050 — but details are scarce

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LG: Beth, are there any moments you say, “Okay, time to change the subject.”

BS: I think that needs to happen all the time because we do wear out. One of the things we really advise people is to keep politics in its place. It shouldn’t be the total of your identity. It shouldn’t be the total of any relationship. It’s important for it to be a piece of the conversation not the entirety of it. I think anytime someone feels physically unsafe it’s important for them to back out of a conversation and we never want to dismiss that that could happen, especially around identity based issues. More than that though, I think if you can just name what’s happening: “Hey, I’m frustrated. I think we should come back to this. I’m not going to be able to express myself well right now because I need to go away and think about it.” That’s a model we want to give our children too. When I think about what I really care about demonstrating to my kids — resilience, kindness, respect for other people, truth telling — all of those are a component to discussing politics within the family. So, if I can show my kids this model of when I reach a place that I’m stuck, I take a break, I regroup, I come back to it and I trust that this person will come back to it with me — I trust us to keep this as something that’s important, but we’re going to stay connected even though we’ll take a short break from it — I feel good about that lesson as a parent.

WATCH BELOW: Talking politics can be tricky, especially when you disagree, but there are ways to navigate the political minefield. Etiquette expert Konrad Philip shares his tips to keep things friendly.

Election etiquette during a heated campaign
Election etiquette during a heated campaign

LG: What does it do for our kids when they see us debating in a respectful way?

SSH: I think it does what it always does when you show your kids instead of just telling them. It gives them an example. It gives them a real life experience to look to, to see, “Okay, what happened there?” Because every parent knows that you can tell them so many times but showing them and being an example for them is a much, much more efficient, more effective tool of parenting.

BS: I also think it gives them so much confidence. When we first started the podcast a couple people asked me, kindly, “Why do you think people care what you have to say?” I feel like every time I show up in political discussion, I’m communicating to my daughters that what they have to say is important. That it is a responsibility of theirs to think about this and talk about it and to use their voices positively to help other people. It’s a selfless act in some ways to continue to show up, even when it’s hard.