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Do I Really Need To Discuss Politics With My In-Laws?

Oct 05, 2012 | Updated Dec 05, 2012

Talking politics with your in-laws may be as pleasant as reclining on a bed of nails, but in an election season it's hard to get away from it. I'll pass over the bland advice of being compassionate and understanding and arm you with strategies. A good question can take the place of name-calling and mud-flinging.

I was on a plane recently, and the man sitting next to me was reading a hunting magazine. I am not a hunter, but I know several people who hunt who are nice human beings. They have helped me when my car was stuck, they have let my grandchildren play with their dogs--they're good people. And I am interested in learning why hunters are against gun control. So I began the conversation with a compliment. "I have a question," I said. "I think most gun owners and hunters are responsible people. I don't understand why they would be against gun control when often, they support having driver's licenses, boater's licenses, and they themselves get hunting licenses."

He said, "Well, that's a good question." He in fact felt that automatic rifles should be regulated. He then went on to say that the National Rifle Association has so worked up gun owners to believe that any regulation would prevent them from ever getting more guns or ammunition that they are buying up more ammunition than they will ever use in their lifetime. He felt the whole issue was an economic one. The gun sellers were making too much money to ever allow the issue of regulation to be solved. Now, I realized we had something to go on, a way to begin a conversation and maybe even be a way to craft legislation that would guarantee rights to buy ammunition, but to also control automatic weapons. Those who want to control guns sales and responsible gun owners could probably find a compromise and at least something to talk about.

But you say, "My in-law's are just out to bait me -- they're looking for a fight." So, instead of engaging in verbal warfare, divert the conversation. "Aren't we lucky we agree on so many things. We both love your child, we love the little grand ids. And we are lucky to live in America where we can agree to disagree." Tone is everything here. It makes the difference between a snide remark and a peace offering. A smile and a happy voice signals, "I don't want to change my opinion any more than you do," while a sneer signals disdain.

But if you want to expand your understanding and maybe have an interesting conversation, find an issue you are curious about, one where you truly would like to find out how and why someone could possibly think differently from you. Then ask a question with kindness and curiosity. Don't plan to convert or convince, rather try to find things in the other person's position that interest you and that you're curious about. It's better to try to connect on that point rather than the big ideology where you'll clash. Asking questions and finding out how others think is far less boring than just being nice and avoiding any "hot" topics. Being with your in-laws might just turn out to be a fascinating experience a chance to find out how the other half thinks And like living with a family in a foreign country, you get to see how they operate.

If the answers to questions in the political arena were easy and there were no confounding influences we would have solved all human problems. Adults have a right to differ, and if we want to make peace in our families, we have to try--and I mean really try--to see things to understand the other's thinking. Only then can we differ with respect.