Welcome to”Dear Guy,” TED’s advice column from psychologist Guy Winch. Twice a month, he’ll answer your questions about your relationships, your job (or jobs), your family (or families), your passions, fears and more. Please send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org; to read his previous columns, go here.
My question is about family members who keep posting negative and angry memes on social media about politics. In my case, they post frequently about “[people of X political party] being dumb idiots.” I want to remain friends on Facebook with these relatives, but I it’s hard to look at their almost daily postings about how “dumb” someone like me is.
One relative recently wrote me a long message trying to point out the errors of my beliefs. I read part of it and responded that I put a lot of thought into my beliefs and I’m comfortable with them. On occasion, I’ll debate one of them, but I rarely do because it’s a waste of time and ultimately unsettling. I like seeing the nice or funny things they post — and they post those things too — but lately I’ve been unfollowing them for 30 days to give myself a break. After 30 days, they’re back on my feed. But after another week or two of the constant bashing of [X political party], I can’t take it and unfollow them for another 30 days.
How should I deal with this drama? Just continue what I’m doing? I have very positive experiences with part of my family, but I don’t know how to deal with the people who still spread too much hate.
Pall in the Family
Editor’s note: The above letter was edited to obscure personal information and political affiliation.
Dear Pall in the Family:
You are so right — and you are so not alone. Our political polarization is dividing friends and families and actually causing stress to a majority of the population. We’re feeling anxious and irritable, preoccupied and distracted, quicker to anger and generally overwhelmed. We’re eating poorly and losing sleep, and our relationships with those on the other side are fraying. Given that it’s an election year in the US, sentiments are only going to get more inflamed, so your question is relevant to many people.
As a therapist, I encounter this issue every day. Because many of my patients have the same concerns but also because some of them direct their political anger toward me (albeit unwittingly). Only last week, a patient said, “I don’t know your views so I hope you don’t take this personally or feel offended but … how can [people who belong to X party] be so fricking stupid?”
And yes, I was on the “fricking stupid” side of things.
Yet I didn’t take their comment personally, because they did not mean me personally. Neither do most people who post about people in X party being “dumb idiots”. Their anger is usually directed towards certain public figures or political factions, not every individual in those groups.
More importantly, I wasn’t offended or angered by my patient’s comment. As a therapist, it’s my job to understand the person sitting in front of me. When you truly understand someone, when you see their perspective and get why they have the feelings and beliefs they do, something happens — it’s really hard to be angry at them. Sure, I may not agree and I might even think they’re distorting the facts, but once I understand them, it’s hard to be upset with them for having those feelings.
In a nutshell, that’s the solution to dealing with angry relatives, on and off social media: understanding.
I know that some people reading this might think that suggesting one-word solutions to complex problems is … fricking stupid. But we tend to think we understand other people, especially friends and family, far more than we actually do. The better we know someone, the more confident we feel in our ability to assess their point of view without asking them — and the more prone we are to getting it wrong. Understanding doesn’t happen automatically, even for therapists. You have to want to understand a person, to approach them without assumptions and with an open mind, and to ask questions without judging the answers.
When you say, “On occasion I’ll debate one of them but I rarely do that because it’s a waste of time and ultimately unsettling,” you’re falling into the same trap most people do — hoping a debate will resolve your differences and bring you closer. Debates are not about understanding someone better. They’re about winning and trying to change someone’s mind. That’s why debating your relatives leaves you unsettled and why it’s probably no treat for them, either. It doesn’t increase understanding for either of you.
So here’s what I suggest. The next time the people who matter to you (please don’t wade into every Facebook fight out there; some people are still outraged by over-posting images of brunch) post angry messages that upset you, try to view it as an opportunity to seek understanding. A recent study about managing political differences on social media found the most effective way to minimize conflict is to highlight past interactions and shared interests. Ask your family members to tell you why they feel the way they do, and then help them understand why you feel the way you do by following the below steps (adjust the phrasing so it sounds like you).
Start by taking a moment to comment on a recent post of theirs that you genuinely liked or appreciated. For example: “Hi Uncle Eddie! The pictures of the twins’ birthday party were hilarious. Who knew they could get that much icing in their hair?”
Frame politics as an interest that you both share rather than as a point of disagreement. For example: “I know how passionate you are about being a [member of X political party] and how deeply you care about the issues. I’m passionate about them as well.”
Invite them to a conversation. For example: “I’d love to understand more about your feelings/beliefs, and I’d love to tell you more about mine. This isn’t about me changing your mind or you changing mine — it’s just so we can understand each other better. Uncle Eddie, this is important to me because we’re family.”
End by giving them permission to decline your invitation — and also use it as an opportunity to ask them to limit their use of offensive terms. For example: “If you don’t want to chat, I understand. But I’d like to ask you to not use terms like ‘idiot’ and ‘dumb’ when posting about [X political party]. It makes it hard for me to enjoy your other posts, which I really look forward to seeing.”).
If they accept your invitation, thank them for agreeing to chat. Ask them an open-ended question that’s specific to them. For example: “I can tell that supporting (X political party) is really meaningful to you; I’d love to hear more about that.” Let them reply, and make sure to not interrupt them and tell them why supporting your party is meaningful to you. Then, invite them to ask you a question.
If they decline your invitation to talk or refuse to answer, don’t be discouraged. Wait to see if they continue to post inflammatory messages — while some people won’t acknowledge their wrongdoing, they will change their behavior. But if they ignore you and keep up the hate, back to unfollowing them you go.
Pall, what I’m suggesting you do is by no means easy. But given the peace-making power of understanding, I believe that investing the required patience, maturity and emotional effort will be worthwhile. If even a small percentage of your attempts to seek understanding resulted in conversations and acceptance of differences, you’ll not only salvage meaningful relationships but you’ll significantly reduce the stress and anger to which you’re exposed and that you yourself must feel.
What’s more, you’ll be demonstrating something that we all know deep in our hearts — the power to bridge the political divide lies in our own hands.
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