How to have a healthy, productive conversation with your relatives over the holiday.

Despite the good manners tip, “don’t discuss politics, religion, or money”, at least one subject comes up over the holiday dinner. Lately, it’s politics, and this Sunday as those of us who celebrate Easter sit down with our relatives, it’s gun control specifically that’s likely to come up.

Before the wine starts flowing and voices raise, it’s healthy to have a plan for discussing this hot-button issue.

Find common ground early. Most of us can agree Parkland and shootings like it should never have happened. Before launching into remedies, try to get consensus on the tragedy itself. Rouse your own sadness over this and try to open their hearts as well. It’s harder to get angry when starting in a place of tenderness.

Be clear on what you want to achieve. Do you want to:

A) Persuade your relatives of your position (and bonus, persuade them to take action)

B) Shame Uncle Bob for his NRA membership

C) Just win an argument

Now, most of us won’t admit B or C are on the menu along with the spiraled ham, but it helps to check in about what our true motives are. The Parkland shooting is terribly upsetting. It’s perfectly legitimate to be angry.

But if we go into a conversation with options B or C in mind, even sub-consciously, we won’t accomplish A. In which case, we’ve ruined dinner and not actually accomplished anything.

No one, repeat, no one responds well to shaming or finger-pointing. A physiological fight or flight reaction takes hold and we shut down our minds to reasonable discourse. In order to have a healthy dinner discussion, stay calm.

Instead of coming across accusatory, try being curious: “help me understand where you’re coming from”; “what would happen if we enforced all existing laws and gun violence continued? What would you propose we do then?”

Pro-gun lawmakers tend to come from pro-gun districts. The more they hear from moderate voters (people who could go either way in an election) that common sense gun control needs to be enacted, the more likely they are to change their positions. If your goal is to persuade those moderate voters at the dinner table to speak up, you’ll have a much greater impact than if you try to persuade die-hard gun supporter Uncle Bob that guns are plain wrong.

Don’t expect to change their minds 100% on every point. Instead, aim for incremental shifts. Aunt Sue may be quiet during the conversation, but if she agrees with you that doing nothing on gun control is unacceptable, that’s a big win. If Uncle Bob can walk away somewhat open-minded on banning bump stocks — or at least stop parroting conspiracy theories about the student activists, that’s one less person contributing to the rigid “no compromise” conversation in our country.

Similarly, as long as you stick to arguments about bump stocks being a way to circumvent existing law and students’ right to be safe in school, you will have a chance to persuade Aunt Sue. But saying that we need to rethink the 2nd amendment or that guns in general are ‘bad’ will turn off a large constituency. Remember, a majority of NRA members support common sense gun policy like background checks. To engage and keep that segment of voters from turning against them, avoid inflammatory language about guns and gun owners.

If there’s anything the past year in American politics has taught us, the hot button-topic of the moment can change quickly. In order to keep the pressure up and achieve significant wins, we need to keep the conversation going.

Stefanie Coxe is the founder & principal of Nexus Werx LLC, a political training company offering the Learn to Lobby line of online and in-person training products: Effective Activism 101, Lobbying 101, and Campaigning 101. Sign up for her e-newsletter to get activism training & lobbying training tips.


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