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Trigger Warning: Family and Politics in this Post

Ooh wee! Our family dodged a bullet this holiday season.  We mixed family and politics at the dinner table, and we survived, thanks to polarity thinking.


The argument will sound familiar -- it’s the same argument families are having across the nation.  Some lean red.  Some lean blue.  And each side calls the other side naïve or stupid or heartless or namby-pamby.


This year our cousin’s wife got involved.  That was a first.  As I ambled from the buffet table to the dining table, I saw her eyes roll.  The pleasant clinking of holiday cheers quickly dulled as another cousin mumbled something, and I watched the familiar dance begin.  Left. Right. Left. Right. Only it wasn’t their feet moving, it was their mouths talking politics.

Family and Politics


This time, however, I changed the dance.  Before the left-right sidestep grew to a left-right stomp, I asked the table, “Hey, I have a request.  Would you be open to an experiment with my favorite topic these days -- polarity thinking?”


I hadn’t been in town for a while, so the group gave me extra leeway and agreed to my request.  All eyes turned to me, so I asked the family members who lean conservative, “What’s the best part of conservatism, in your opinion?”


The answers popcorned up quickly. An uncle opened with, “It fosters personal responsibility.”  His wife added, “It supports individual freedoms.”  My sister contributed “It limits government taxation – the private sector can provide services more efficiently than government.”

The liberal leaning side of the family stopped eating and gave me the stink eye until I asked them, “What’s the best part of liberalism, in your opinion?”


They perked up with an aunt who shared “It provides social services for people facing undue hardship.”  Her husband added “It supports civil liberties and uplifts those who have been oppressed.”  Another sister contributed “It limits environmental pollution, workplace hazards and unsafe products.” 


This time the conservative leaning side of the family crossed their arms and looked annoyed, but I stayed with the liberal side and asked, “What happens when conservative has gone bad?” 


Answers were quick!  I heard an onslaught of replies including, “The large corporations are chewing people up and spitting them out!  We need to raise the minimum wage so people can eke out a living!  The profit motive has poisoned our lakes, streams, and land! It ignores the historical and systematic oppression many fellow citizens have struggled to overcome!”


As the agitation grew on the red side, I invited them to share “What’s the worst part of liberal?  When has liberal gone bad?” 

Answers again were quick. “The government is bloated and horribly inefficient!  Liberal social policies have created lazy freeloaders who live off welfare!  We’ve become so politically correct and hyper-sensitive that we can’t even debate ideas without issuing trigger warnings in advance!”


Then Grandma, gifted at staying neutral amid conflict, quietly asked “What was the purpose of that exercise?”  I replied, “They fell right into my trap.  They just argued the diagonals!

Arguing the Diagonals

When we have strong pole preferences in a polarity, we frequently argue the diagonals and spin our wheels.  Liberals argue the benefits of liberalism and the overuses of conservativism.  Inversely, conservatives argue the benefits of conservatism and the overuses of liberalism.  Although we speak a lot of words, we aren’t really listening to understand each other.  We’re just expecting the others to understand us.

As Stephen R. Covey implies with his “First seek to understand, then to be understood” quote, it’s human nature to argue your truth until you are confident that you’ve been understood.  Only then will you be open to another perspective.  This is a Catch 22, however, because someone must make the first move.  So, I did.


I asked each side to state what they appreciated about the other’s ideology.  Reluctantly, the blues said they liked the individual freedoms and wouldn’t mind some lower taxes.  The reds said they liked Medicare, Social Security, and they also want clean water. 


Heads started nodding.  My mom sat back in her chair.  I could feel the tension easing, albeit slowly. 


A Bridge Too Far

Then I upped the ante.  To the liberals in the room, I asked, “Name a part of the liberal agenda that is a bridge too far.  Something even you can’t get behind.”  The blues mentioned the recent fiasco on Capitol Hill when three university presidents equivocated on whether calling for the genocide of Jews violated their code of conduct.


Then I turned to the conservatives to ask the inverse, “What part of the conservative agenda is a bridge too far?”  They named the separation of migrant children from their parents at the border between Mexico and the US as something they couldn’t get behind.  Yes, they wanted border security, but separating children from parents violated human decency.


Family and Politics

That’s when the breathing eased, as if oxygen had been pumped into the dining room.  The conservatives heard the liberals acknowledge something good about conservatism, and more importantly, something they disliked about their own liberalism.  The liberals heard the conservatives acknowledge something good about liberalism, and more importantly, something they disliked about their own conservatism. 


Framing our ideological differences using polarity thinking allowed for constructive conflict and minimized destructive conflict. We could agree to disagree on the ideologies, without the vitriol in the relationship. 


And we enjoyed the rest of our holiday meal.


Use polarity thinking in your family business when you find yourselves arguing the diagonals, and both sides are right.  “Should you invest or harvest profits” is a common example.  Transcend the tension by changing the question to ”How can you get the upsides of both invest and harvest?” 


Learn more about polarity thinking and how to apply it in family businesses in my upcoming book, Hug of War.  In the meantime,  Join my mailing list to tide you over until the book launches in July.

1 comentario

06 ene

Great article!! Enjoyed reading it!

Looking forward to your book!

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