How to Disagree Respectfully With Your In-Laws and Loved Ones
A common etiquette question we receive is how to disagree respectfully with someone, whether it be during the wedding planning process or within your marriage. Ahead of the holidays, one potential challenge for couples may involve in-laws and family members who share different political views. Many to-be-weds might be concerned about political talk with loved ones at the Thanksgiving Dinner table or over holiday brunch.
A study from Lasting found that 46 percent of women and 42 percent of men are unhappy with the relationship they share with their spouse's family. Escalating tensions involving different political views can only build a divide that can very well be avoided. However, you can navigate these conversations with dignity with our tips on how to disagree respectfully with your in-laws and loved ones in the months ahead.
Create a United Front With Your Partner
Before you greet nana or your cousins at the door, you should be aligned with your partner first. Even if you don't necessarily see eye-to-eye on political issues yourselves, it's important to have a contingency plan if the discussion gets out of hand in order to avoid a fight with your in-laws or parents.
"Navigating the winter holidays with diverse family members is a common topic and requires a careful discussion so as not to alienate anyone," explains Rabbi Judy Greenfeld, the spiritual leader of the Nachshon Minyan congregation in L.A. "Preparation is necessary—whether you're on the same side or opposing side… If you and your partner can approach the situation as a united front, with the same strategy, that is ideal."
Before entering the household, discuss how you plan to politely disagree with parents, in-laws and others about things like politics or other touchy subjects. Identify and prime each other for what to expect, and agree to stand united about political references at the dinner table. "Part of being a couple is based on compromise," explains Greenfeld. "It's a great time to give an example of how much respect you have for each other's opinions."
Listen Before Speaking
Even if you disagree with another person's thoughts, being open-minded and engaging in healthy discourse are skills to develop if you want to learn how to disagree politely. Interrupting loved ones while they're presenting their thoughts is something you generally want to avoid, along with a determination to change someone's frame of mind.
"It is important to remember: the holidays are not the time to convert anyone to seeing your point of view. And almost certainly, no matter how hard you try, you won't succeed in swaying anyone in such a short time. It will instead cause the holiday to sour," says Greenfeld. "It is important to listen to the other side even if you don't believe in what they are saying. Be the bigger person and try to see where they are coming from. You can set ground rules, but families have their own rules too and not everyone will adhere to yours."
For your sanity, she says: "Do not engage if there can't be an open discussion."
Agree to Disagree
Political opinions are just that: opinions. While some opinions may feel personal, managing conversations when you disagree politically starts with how each individual frames it: thoughts are formulated off personal experiences and learned perceptions of the world. Therefore, discourse should often be navigated in a way where genuine curiosity leads over the desire to be right. "Try not to take comments personally. Don't take the bait," says Greenfeld.
Also, remember families involve much history—something you or your partner may not be entirely dialed into. "It is much easier if you are prepared," advises Greenfeld. "It is very hard to always remember how to gauge personalities; but it takes a real bird's eye view of who and what the family dynamics are at play, in order to succeed in staying calm and not getting roped into an argument."
Equip Yourselves With Other Topics
One tip for how to respectfully disagree with someone is to gracefully pivot a conversation without being too overtly obvious about it. "Interruption always helps. Come prepared with other engaging topics," notes Greenfeld. "If you think the conversation will inevitably veer towards politics, be ready with other interesting material. You'd be surprised how appreciative others will be."
Placing an emphasis on your shared values is another way to navigate conversation. Ask yourselves, what are your values as a couple and how can you relay them to your loved ones through the mundane? Perhaps mention a beautiful book or movie that's transformed your outlook, or a new hobby you've picked up. If you want to broach the topic of your wedding, share your planning journey and what you've learned in the process thus far. (Psst: consider quizzing the fam on the average cost of a wedding in your state.)
"You can even make a game out of it [with the whole family]," says Greenfeld. "And dole out penalty points if the discussion goes astray." It doesn't have to be heavy especially if you and your partner pivot in a way to keep the conversation from stagnation.
Prepare Responses Ahead of Time
When you aren't sure how to disagree politely, it can be helpful to have a few phrases prepared ahead of time to use in the heat of the moment. Here are ten graceful ways to disagree respectfully and pivot the conversation to a new topic:
- I see where you're coming from, but…
- That's a valid point, but…
- I hear your point, but…
- I respect your point, but from my perspective…
- I'm going to agree to disagree.
- I don't see it that way.
- I'm not sure I agree with that.
- It seems like we have different opinions on the subject.
- I'm on the opposite side of the debate.
- I see things differently.
Do Your Best to Avoid Drinking and Talking Politics
We get it: it's the holidays and the wine is flowing and the festive cocktails are abundant. Some families drink more heavily than others, so this next point for respectfully disagreeing is case-dependent. Overall, every member should be mindful about alcohol consumption and how it impacts cognitive abilities and in extreme cases, the emotional safety of guests.
"Before you enter into family occasions, you must consider, will there be drinking or not?" Greenfeld says. "Tensions can run highest when there is too much alcohol. If that is the case with your family (as it is with many family gatherings), remember that the opinions of those are often distorted or exaggerated."
If tensions start to flare and it's challenging to politely disagree in a group discussion, it simply takes four seconds to take a full breath—enough time for oxygen to flow through your body for increased awareness. "Taking time for meditative breathing can also be a helpful strategy if you start to feel tension growing," says Greenfeld. "Meditative breathing is easy to do (you can find many great tutorials online), and it can be done anywhere and is an immediate way to bring focus on your breath, slow your heart rate and reinstate a sense of calm."
Respectfully Say 'No' When You Must
Certified psychotherapist Jeanne Safer, author of I Love You, but I Hate Your Politics, says it's best for couples to avoid a fight with in-laws if at all possible. Claims of voter fraud, for example, is an area where you can decline further comment, especially if deflecting the topic doesn't work. "My advice is: avoid it like the plague," says Safer. "Shut it down, and do not rise to the bait."
Instead, continue to emphasize the holiday and the meaning behind the gathering. "You don't have to get into it. You can say 'no' at a party or the dinner table," says Safer. "At Thanksgiving, you can say: 'Here we are at Thanksgiving. Let's give thanks and not think about all the things we disagree about or talk about this now."
If the conversation is escalated even further, another tactic for disagreeing respectfully is to use the stop method. "When a fight starts, say, 'Let's stop this. Please. There's too much of this in the world,'" advises Safer. "People are usually grateful when someone does that. Nobody wants to be in the middle of [an uncomfortable family fight]."
You may have to refill your water or take a call with another family member. Whatever it is, excuse yourself if the atmosphere of the room feels hostile and stressful. If a loved one insists on continuously discussing politics, feel free to extricate yourself from the room.
"At every wedding [or event], there could be a horrible toast or commentary, and sometimes it might be political," says Richard Brookhiser, a conservative political analyst who's married to Safer, a liberal therapist. The couple, in their 40 years of marriage, has seen their fair share of political differences not only between themselves, but within their social circles as well. "Dial it down and take it out of the room," he suggests. "That's a delicate thing. Sometimes… you just have to play it by ear in those situations. There will be people less well behaved than you involved."
Show Grace (Especially Within Your Relationship)
So you've planned your reaction and every approach to respectfully disagreeing has failed. That's OK. Managing conversations when you disagree politically is complicated, and so are family dynamics. "Spending Thanksgiving with family is a challenge in and of itself," says Greenfeld. "You'll learn your strongest lessons (as an individual and as a couple) by making your biggest mistakes, so be gentle with yourself and learn from the mistakes. Don't turn on each other if you get pulled into the drama."
Maintain an Attitude of Gratitude
Over turkey, over stuffing and even over that delicious serving of homemade pie is the main course: gratitude. Whether it's Thanksgiving dinner or a Kwanzaa feast, expressing gratitude will help guide a meaningful and celebratory dinner with loved ones. Remember to focus on all the good you have (your partnership is one example), and let that be your centerpiece.