Column: How to have a meaningful conversation with your MAGA dad

Lately, I’ve been avoiding conversations with my father because of his passion for lecturing me about politics from a far-right perspective. He started during the COVID shutdowns. Not long ago, he told me that he sees Tucker Carlson as a hero. Exasperated, I told him that he was idolizing a guy who had mocked his daughter’s reports on national television.

He shook his head as if I were lying or complaining, then soliloquized Carlson’s defense of traditional masculinity. “Tucker’s got his balls on the ground,” he said.

opinion columnist

Juan Guerrero

Jean Guerrero is the author, most recently, of “Hatemonger: Stephen Miller, Donald Trump and the White Nationalist Agenda.”

It is not unusual to distance ourselves from family members who have adopted ideas that we consider completely wrong and dangerous. We have become accustomed to our divisions, which many of us consider unbridgeable. But as we enter 2024, I wonder: If we can’t have difficult political conversations with some of the people we love most, how are we going to overcome our differences as a nation?

This election year could determine whether our democracy lives or dies. What better New Year’s resolution than fighting for your survival by rebuilding relationships with family members on the other side? For many, it would be about more than politics. Personally, I don’t want to live the rest of my days without being able to connect with my dad.

We cannot impose unilateral change on anyone. But if we seek to connect across differences, we can sometimes trigger a process of mutual transformation. It’s a risky art, especially for women who have been raised to make room for bellicose men in our lives. What happens if we are faced with a family member who acts as if they know everything? Is it worth hiring such a person?

For many of us, it is not. I’ve spent the last three years learning how to set boundaries. It’s been fantastic for my mental health and sense of well-being. But now that I know how to protect myself, I think I might be prepared to try to save the bond with my father.

Experts believe it may be it’s worth it involve even the most stubborn members of our family. Braver Angels, a citizen organization working to unite red and blue America, has a free online course for talking to family members about politics based on their debate personality types, including what the group calls the “gladiator,” the one who regularly starts arguments to prove others wrong.

When entering the ring with a gladiator or anyone else, it’s important to be in control of your emotions, said Bill Doherty, co-founder of Braver Angels and professor of family social sciences at the University of Minnesota. “Many times conversations start when someone else in your family or in your social world says something that bothers you and then you pursue it,” he told me. “This is not the best way to start the conversation. Don’t start when you’re upset.”

But it’s often harder to stay calm when talking politics with a family member than with almost anyone else, in part because of how family baggage can take over. A Bravest Angels Worksheet in family and politics lists examples of phrases that reveal old resentments and derail the discussion, such as “You’re not my boss,” “You’ve never taken me seriously,” or “You think you’re the smart/enlightened/saint one.” “

A useful strategy is to talk to family members one on one, especially with gladiators who are irritated by the audience. “If you start the conversation discreetly, it’s less likely to go wrong,” Doherty said. Other tactics include practicing beforehand and simply reminding ourselves that we don’t have to go back to childhood.

During the conversation we must avoid pejorative labels, generalizations and the impulse to attribute the most extreme beliefs to the other person. Let’s keep in mind the fact that we are all in different echo chambers that bombard us with information that reinforces our prejudices and portrays the other side as a monolith.

Braver Angels suggests four steps to meaningful conversations with gladiators: clarify, agree, pivot, and offer perspective (CAPP). Here’s how that strategy might work with a boisterous MAGA relative, whether a classic gladiator or not.

Clarify: Be curious about what your family member really believes and paraphrase what you think they believe as accurately as possible. Don’t overshadow or distort what they have said. Ask questions from a place of humility.

Agree: Find common ground, such as a shared belief, value, or goal. Tell the family member that you agree with them on this.

Pivot: Let the family member know that you would like to share your perspective. Braver Angels suggests the phrase: “Can I give you my opinion on this topic?”

Perspective: Offer your perspective if you get the green light. Use personal stories and humanizing anecdotes. If your family member doesn’t want to hear your thoughts, go back to the first two steps or exit the conversation.

Braver Angels suggests settling for short and sweet conversations. The ultimate goal may not be to win the argument, but rather to connect more deeply with the other person. If the conversation goes well or better than expected, express gratitude. If your family member lectures and attacks all the time, then it is best to end the conversation and do so without returning fire.

Some of us may have a greater gift for these conversations. It is understandable that others want to avoid bullying and old patterns of behavior. But closing communication cannot change those patterns. What can inspire change is the effort to connect.

There is a part of my father that longs to connect with me. There are other parts too. But the part that got to me is the part that he never stopped trying to connect with me. I gave up for a while. Now I feel inspired to try again.


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