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Talking Politics—Without Getting the Silent Treatment

Family Therapist Offers Tips for Navigating a Fraught Election Year

By Karen Shih ’09

illustration of people talking at table

Friendships and family ties can survive political differences of opinion, a UMD family therapy expert says.

Illustration by Lauren Biagini

Regardless of your political leanings or the company you keep, the road to the 2024 presidential polls will likely be studded with conversational potholes. So how do you keep insults (or rolls) from flying at the dinner table?

According to Tiara Fennell, a licensed family therapist and director of UMD’s Center for Healthy Families, conversations with friends and family don’t have to be fraught when opinions don’t align. She offers four tips for keeping a cool head during a heated debate:

Before the next social gathering, set realistic expectations about what you might encounter and limits on what you’re willing to engage in. “We all know our families,” says Fennell. “These are relationships we really want to maintain, so figure out your boundaries up front.”

Knee-jerk reactions—whether at the office water cooler or on social media—often do more harm than good. “Maybe don’t use your first thought,” she says. “Go with your third or fourth.”

When a debate with a loved one turns ugly, says Fennell, it’s time to walk it back and regain good footing: Acknowledge your role in the disagreement and more importantly, be willing to apologize.

People don’t always agree, but it’s important to shift conversations away from “me against them,” says Fennell. Apply good communication, with an emphasis on listening. “Empathy and a willingness to listen will make these conversations more approachable,” she says. “Because frankly, they’re needed.”



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