As the 2020 presidential race gets more and more crowded and world events seem to seep into our everyday conversation, it’s becoming harder to avoid tough, controversial topics — especially around people you spend a lot of time with. When it comes to family, these conversations can be especially strained. For one, you might not get along with them to begin with. And what’s more, your opinions and values might be rooted in differing from theirs.

family differences

Having different values and beliefs doesn’t mean you have to cut ties, though. Dr. Jacob Goldsmith, a clinical psychologist with an active practice at The Family Institute at Northwestern University, has advice that can help you and your family navigate your potential political, religious, and lifestyle divides.

Dr. Goldsmith says that while disparities in values are nothing new, there are a few factors that have made these disparities more prevalent for today’s millennials and their families. One factor is the fact that millennials are more outspoken about their beliefs than their counterparts from previous generations — and as a result, “this might make it seem like there’s a growing divide, when really what’s happening is that more people feel comfortable speaking up.” Thankfully, Dr. Goldsmith believes that most families are actually doing a great job of supporting the voices of their younger members.

That being said, letting someone’s voice be heard and actually hearing what they’re saying (or better yet, having a conversation about it) are two different things.

“I see a lot of families run into trouble because of religious or political differences,” Dr. Goldsmith said. “Having different values isn’t necessarily a problem in and of itself. However, you either need the skills and capacities to talk through these differences, or you need the ability to agree to disagree and then actually let go and move on. Otherwise, the feelings fester and can create ruptures in the family.”

So how can you talk through differences or simply agree to disagree? Dr. Goldsmith has four main tips.

1. Start with the feelings part. No matter how respectful both parties are, there’s no denying that feelings are on the line in hard conversations among family. Dr. Goldsmith advocates that a “base of truth, empathy, and basic communication skills” is an important foundation for navigating differing values. Perhaps more importantly though, he says that it’s important to ask how you want to feel about yourself as a result of the conversation — and let that intention guide you throughout for the best result.

2. Set aside intentional time to talk. If you and any member of your family have made the active decision to discuss your differences, it’s worthwhile to plan out the conversation ahead of while. As always, talking in person is optimal, but talking on the phone can work if it’s necessary or you’re navigating distance. That said, “avoid text or email — it’s very hard to read subtext and subtle cues in writing,” Dr. Goldsmith says.

3. If you don’t set time to talk, set boundaries instead. “If you feel like your family is incapable of talking through differences, it is healthy and appropriate to set boundaries,” Dr. Goldsmith advises. “Make it clear that there are things that you don’t want to discuss with the family.”

4. Understand which beliefs and values can coexist and which can’t. Values can coexist when opposing viewpoints have the potential to be compatible. The value of saving money, for example, can be compatible. While parents and their kids might differ in terms of how much money should be saved, talking through this value might allow a family to, in Dr. Goldsmith’s terms, “build mutual understanding, or go a step beyond to finding a compromise or outlining a set of shared guidelines for the family.” On the other hand, values that can’t coexist might lead to a conversation with a goal of allowing someone to speak their mind or boundary setting. “That doesn’t mean that people with these opposing values can’t choose to coexist — it just means they’re going to coexist in site of the values difference,” Dr. Goldsmith said.

Overall, Dr. Goldsmith believes that differences can be a source of strength for a family — especially if they’re addressed correctly. “When looking at areas of difference, push past the surface level talk and get down to why people feel the way they do,” he said. “Through repeated conversations, we come to understand how and why people believe what they believe, and through this mutual understanding, we feel closer in spite of our differences.”

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