8 tips for talking to your family about Trump

“If you are telling the truth, then you can speak gently, and your words will have power.”                               — Chogyam Trungpa

I recently spoke with a young Seattle woman who was so heart-broken and disgusted by the election results that she vowed to boycott all holiday gatherings with her Midwestern, Trump-supporting family until they denounced Trump. While I can empathize with her pounding pain and feelings of betrayal, I encouraged her to reconsider the boycott and instead lean in to family during this difficult time. After all, one reason we’re facing these disastrous election results is because people who are related to Trump supporters have failed to do the hard cross-cultural work of maintaining relationship with them and having difficult, persuasive conversations with them. 

A quick glance at the 2016 electoral college map illuminates the echo chambers across the continent; so many of us are solely surrounded by people who share our political and social views. This makes sense: many of us know the pain of interacting with family and community members who are unaware of the systemic injustices that plague our society. But rather than working to make them aware, we often flee to progressive, justice-minded communities, where we, ironically, invest lots of time trying to change the minds of other people’s family members. Within our political enclaves, we rarely have meaningful conversations with people who see the world through a different lens. We rarely truly hear their perspective, and we rarely engage in the difficult justice work of moving the needle in our family and community of origin. 

So many of us are walking into this holiday season, knowing that many of our family members and loved ones view the election results differently than we do. Perhaps they voted for Trump, or perhaps they didn't but nevertheless seem unbothered by the election results. Either way, they aren’t lamenting, they aren’t aware of what’s at stake, they aren’t aghast at the injustices that are taking place even as Trump prepares to assume office, and they certainly aren’t answering the various calls to join in the fight for justice. Rather than avoiding holiday gatherings, or pledging to steer clear of all political talk among family members, why not see it as an opportunity to build bridges and work for justice?

From Teresa of Avila to Thich Nhat Hanh to MLK, Jr. to Abraham Heschel to Malcolm X, social activists from a variety of spiritual traditions show us that the most effective and sustainable pathway to justice is one that is rooted in love and not fear, one that is powered by skillful, strategic action rather than undisciplined reaction. Those of us who spend time with family members who view the election results differently, need a holistic plan for conversation, connection and justice. As someone who often facilitates and participates in difficult cross-cultural conversations (including among my loved ones), I’ve decided to share some tips.

1. Be encouraged that you’re probably the best person to talk to your family about the election.

Let’s face it. If your siblings are racist, they’re unlikely to listen to anything that I, a black woman, would have to say. If your cousins are Islamophobic, they’re probably not going to know the story of your Muslim co-worker. If your grandma thinks America should build a bigger fence along the Mexico border, she probably doesn’t know any undocumented immigrants. The good news is that social psychology research on extended contact theory reveals that we can play a critical role in opening our family members minds about different groups. Research shows that our prejudice toward groups significantly decreases when we learn that someone we know has a positive relationship with someone in the other group. When we speak up about our relationships with ‘the other,’ we offer prejudiced people in our group (e.g., family) a pathway to openness and empathy.

2. Dig deep into humility.

Once we’ve been on the justice journey for a while, it’s easy to forget that we haven’t always been on it. Because I like to feel good about myself (especially during times of instability like right now), I love to think that I’ve always been as socially-aware as I am now. But that’s not true. Over the course of my life I’ve been ignorant, internalized oppressive ideology, hurt marginalized people, and resisted self-examination. Nevertheless, there were gracious people there all along the way who were willing to challenge me by vulnerably sharing their stories, answering my offensive questions, and speaking truth to me. I wouldn’t be where I am without them. So before I head into a difficult conversations, I take a few minutes to journal about the people who have been my guides along the way. It’s empowering and humbling for me to remember my journey as I seek to jumpstart other people’s journeys. 

3. Plan a Sabbath during your time with family.

I’m reading Heschel’s The Sabbath right now; the fact that a great social justice activist like Heschel would write one of the best books on rest and restoration is so beautiful to me. He knew that activism and rest are intimately intertwined. We can only love well when we feel loved and energized. We all know how stressful and energy consuming time with family can be. So while you’re with family, plan to take time off for restoration. Plan your excuses ahead of time and build your Sabbath into your schedule. Some ideas: a 20 minute walk to breathe deeply into fresh air, a couple of hours at coffee shop reading one of your favorite books, or a night out with friends who know, love and affirm you well.

4. Do some spiritual strength training.

We are not invincible; we cannot continually enter into difficult conversations unless we are clothed in an armor of love. One of my spiritual teachers often uses the term spiritual strength training as a reminder that our spiritual practices make us stronger and more resilient; they help us to seek justice from a place of love and not fear, to see the humanity and dignity in ourselves and others, and to cope with pain and difficulty in healthy ways. When I’m heading into a particularly oppressive situation I amp up my spiritual strength training. Practices that strengthen me include: 

  • fasting from media that doesn’t help me to see the humanity and dignity in people who disagree with me politically
  • self-compassion visualization exercises like The Compassionate Friend meditation that help me to know that I’m not alone. Since my activism is rooted in Christian spirituality, I often visualize a visit from the Creator, the Spirit or Jesus the Liberator.
  • Simple prayers that help to strengthen my understanding of the interconnectedness of us all.  One example: I visualize each person I’m going to encounter at a particular gathering and greet them with the phrase “The (image of) God in me greets the (image of) God in you.”
  • Structured prayers like LovingKindness Meditation or Episcopal Morning Prayer
  • For more on spiritual strength training, please read my post Guarding your Heart from Oppression.

5. Prepare to tell the story of your justice journey.

Rather than planning to launch shaming justice grenades on your family members, spend time preparing to strategically and vulnerably share your story with them. I’ve found that personal story-telling is one of the most effective ways to awaken people to justice and guide them along. Stories can create space for common understanding and unsurprisingly are typically better received than soapbox speeches. As your prepare, consider the ways in which you have empathized with your family members’ current perspective and experiences (e.g., “I remember growing up in this town and not knowing any Muslims”); think about the events or relationships that catalyzed your passion for justice (e.g., “In college, my roommate was Muslim and I took a class on Islam.”); recall the emotions (pain, shame, anxiety, anger, defiance, etc.) that you experienced during the catalyst (e.g., “At first, I felt afraid when I met my roommate. Then I felt shame for being prejudiced so I wanted to retreat into only Christian friendships.”). And think about the path you’ve been on ever since — the challenges, joys, spiritual fulfillment, connectedness to humanity, etc. Once you’ve prepared your story, identify the family member who is most likely to at least try to hear it and boldly ask for their ear. See where the conversation takes you.

6. Remember that this isn’t the only conversation/interaction you’re going to have.

We often plant seeds. My friend Greg has spent the last twelve years trying to love his bigoted parents unconditionally while simultaneously trying to help them see their bigotry. He refused to give up -- relentlessly sharing stories and film, listening to their fears, appealing to their theology, inviting them into his journey, apologizing for his self-righteousness, and forgiving himself when he made mistakes. After years of almost no evidence of change, his mom surprised him by posting a pro-Black Lives Matter article in her FB newsfeed and entreating her friends to read it with an open mind. Since then, he’s seen substantial change in his mom’s heart and actions. As Archbishop Oscar Romero believed, “We plant the seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.”  

7. Be kind to yourself.

You’re wonderfully imperfect. The pain, fear and anxiety that you are experiencing right now is human and justified. You’re not going to always respond to it perfectly. Give yourself permission to be imperfect and to do imperfect justice work. 

8. Repeat Tip 4 :)


*This post is written for people who are planning to spend the holidays with their family. It does not state or imply that all people should spend the holidays with their family. The decision to spend time with your family this (or any) holiday season is ideally made in community with people who know you well and care about your well-being (e.g., friends or a therapist) and should also take into account your mental and physical wellness. Be well.