Respectful Conversations in a Family that Disagrees

It cannot be denied that discourse these days is increasingly characterized by a rampant tribalism; which has been described as an us-versus-them mentality where it is believed that with regard to any contentious issue, “me-and-my-people” possess the “whole truth,” while “those other folks” have none of the truth; leading to the conclusion that there is nothing to be learned from talking to those other folks.

But who are “me-and-my-people?” They could be members of my church, or my church’s denomination, or my political party, or the fraternal organization to which I belong, or my circle of friends. But what about my biological family? Can I describe them as belonging to a group designated as “me-and-my-people?”

No! First of all, it is a grievous error to think that any of the groups mentioned above is homogeneous; where it is assumed that all members hold to the same beliefs about the issue at hand. But this belief is particularly pernicious when talking about one’s biological family. My wife Pat and I have three children. With regard to contentious public policy issues, two of our children tend strongly toward “conservative” positions, while the third tends strongly toward more “liberal” positions. Why is that?

My short response is my belief that what each of us believes is true about any issue, is strongly informed by “who we are,” a major component of which is our “life story”; our description of the experiences we have had throughout our lifetimes. And, whatever genetic dispositions our children my have inherited from Pat and me, each one has lived through a unique set of experiences that no one else, both within and outside our family, has experienced.

This uniqueness of the “life story” of one of our children may help him to see things that mom, dad and siblings have missed. And, likewise, the uniqueness of the ‘life stories” of mom, dad, or the other two siblings may help him to see things that the others have missed.

Therefore, to generalize in more philosophical/theological terms, I, as a finite and fallible human being, may glimpse a portion of the truth about the issue at hand, while you, as another finite and fallible human being, may glimpse a different portion of the truth; with only God knowing the full truth.

If I am right about that, then, as members of the same family, we “need to compare notes,” so to speak. We need to respectfully engage one another regarding our differing partial glimpses of the truth; not toward the goal of “winning an argument” but toward the goal of collectively uncovering a more comprehensive grasp of the “full truth.”

Now, with all of the above setting a context, my main premise in this Musing is that each of us should avoid like the plague assuming that the phrase “me-and-my-people” in the usual definition of tribalism given above should include my “family unit.” Whatever the issue at hand, there may be strong disagreements within the same family. And proactive steps need to be taken to “compare notes” within the family unit in the search for a better approximation of the “full truth” than any one family member can provide.

Having suggested that, however, I wish I had a dollar for all the stories I have been told as to how difficult it is to orchestrate such a respectful conversation among members of the same family. So, what to do?

Some of the horror stories I have heard strongly suggest what NOT to do within any family: Don’t discuss a contentious issue, like political affiliation or the merits and demerits of any public policy, at a family celebration, like Thanksgiving or Christmas. The reasons for not doing this include the likely fact that not all family attendees will be conversant regarding the issue at hand, and attendees will not have been given the time needed to develop cogent responses to some difficult questions (a grievous mistake that seems to characterize most conversations about contentious issues). The result will most likely be that both the holiday celebration and a fine meal will be ruined.

What is an alternative procedure for navigating strong disagreements among family members regarding contentious political issues? Not by starting with issues about which you know there is disagreement. For example, do not start by asking each participant to state his/her political affiliation (Republican, Democrat, Third-Party, Independent) and his her “reasons” for that affiliation in terms of foundational value commitments – hold variations of that good question until later in the conversation, after a foundational level of mutual understanding and mutual trust has been established.

Rather, start with an educated guess as to a statement with which all participants will agree. For example, “In sharp contrast to the economic systems in Communist countries, where the state makes economic decisions, economic decisions in America should be made within a capitalistic free market  system where individuals are “free”  (most of the time, if not all of the time) to make decisions that best serve their goals.”

After participants discuss whether they agree, or not, with this statement, and their reasons for doing so, the door has been opened to venture into considering the debatable issue as to whether this “economic freedom” applies “all of the time” or just “most of the time.” In other words, a foundation has been laid to be able to debate whether there are legitimate “limitations” on economic freedoms suggested by the fact that certain population groups (e.g., the physically or mentally disabled) that cannot compete in a free market economy.

It is only after this initial conversation has taken place that participants will be adequately prepared to address more “big picture” questions, like:

  • How do the results of our conversation to date fit, or not fit, with your understanding of the core values of the Republican party?; the Democratic party?
  • Whatever party you affiliated with prior to our conversation, has our conversation to date given you “second thoughts” about that affiliation? If so, in what way?
  • How do the results of our prior conversation to date fit, or not fit, with the Christian values to which you are committed?

In light of the procedure for I propose above for navigating strong disagreements among family members regarding contentious political issues, here is the invitation to participate in this conversation that I would extend to a small group of 2 to 4 family members:


Dear …:

I am guessing that there are some strong disagreements among us relative to the best political affiliation and the best public policies.

But I am also guessing that we all value a capitalistic free market economy where “most of the time, if not all of the time” each of us is “free” to make economic choices that best serve our goals.

However, the above phrase “most of the time, if not all of the time,” raises the interesting question as to whether there should ever be “limitations” on such “economic freedom.”

In that light, I am inviting you to join a small group of family members to discuss that question. If you are able to accept my invitation (which I sincerely hope will be the case), please come to our first meeting prepared to respond to the following request:

Please help all of us to understand your beliefs about whether there should ever be “limitations” on “economic freedom” and the reasons you have for taking the position you take, focusing on those aspects of your lifetime of experiences (your “personal life story”) that deeply influence your position.

            I look forward to a lively and helpful conversation.

            With love, Dad (or whatever, depending on the recipient)

I anticipate that a few readers are concerned with the “Mr. Nice Guy” approach to family disagreements that I have outlined above that focuses on respectfully trying to understand the contrary positions taken by other family members and the reasons the reasons for holding those positions. How naïve is that in our tribalistic age? Whoever is moderating such a family conversation needs to be “firm” with obnoxious family members. Yes, eventually, but kindness comes first.

I base this strong belief on my experience as a Vice President for Academic Affairs at two Christian liberal arts colleges, where I had to be firm in reporting a negative vote by the Faculty Status Committee, and the reasons for that vote, to a faculty member who had applied for an increase in rank or the granting of tenure (no being wishy-washy). But this report was preceded by many years of my working very hard to help this faculty member to grow as a teacher and scholar, starting with his/her first month of employment where I made it clear that I would take every possible initiative to help him/her to experience that growth. The faculty member did not respond to my firmness with nastiness. In fact, one such faculty member thanked me for my firmness and expressed appreciation for the many ways in which I had tried to foster growth over the years. At the end of our “bad news” meeting. I expressed hope that in a few years.  there would be “good news” to share. So, kindness comes before firmness.

I close with a true confession. For reasons too complex to explain here, one of which is some apprehension as to how well, or not, my three children would respond to my sending out the type of invitation I present above, I have not yet implemented my own procedural recommendations. I plan on sending out such invitations during the first quarter of 2024.

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