Politics is one of those untouchable topics that many people are taught to steer clear of in day-to-day conversations.
Indeed, the discomfort of opening Pandora's little box of politics is so great that 83 percent of people avoid talking about political issues, according to Kerry Patterson, interpersonal communication expert and co-author of, "Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High."
Patterson says few people feel they can control their temper when discussing politics, and most have bad experiences when they share their opinions.
It's not surprising that most people chose to remain mum on the subject.
"Politics and religion are two things that are based on preferences—on a person's sense of right and wrong—rather than on facts. That's why these discussions become so problematic. We're having them in the clouds," says Laurie Puhn, J.D., relationship expert and author of, "Fight Less, Love More: 5-Minute Conversations to Change Your Relationship Without Blowing Up or Giving In."
The deep philosophical divides that exist between Republicans and Democrats have never been more palpable than they are in the run up to the current election.
Long-standing intimate relationships add an aura of, "been-there-discussed-that," that can make political discussions among family members extra tedious and susceptible to conflict.
This is especially true when older Americans and their adult children debate affairs of state.
While caregivers and their aging parents may find common ground when it comes to the essential nature of programs like Medicare and Social Security, each person is approaching these issues from a different life stage.
Seniors worry about their benefits being cut just as they're reaching the age when they will need them most, while baby boomer caregivers are faced with the fear that these programs won't last long enough to help them in a few decades when they need assistance.
"Many of these topics become true factual issues when you're dealing with aging parents—these are real questions and legitimate concerns," Puhn says.
Beyond the complex world of health care and the economy lie other minefield issues like abortion, foreign policy, gun control and gay marriage. Deeply-rooted in religious and moral ideology, these topics can be even more difficult to discuss, especially when parents and children have differing ethical stances.
Keeping conversations civil
How do you navigate the muddy waters of political discourse without torching your relationship with your aging parent?
- Be choosy: Pick your battles—the Golden Rule of interpersonal relationships—is especially valuable advice when discussing politics. If your loved one yells at the television during a candidate's speech, is that really affecting you? Probably not. So don't bother starting an argument over it.
- Seek shelter on common ground: Instead of focusing on how you and your loved one disagree, look for areas where your opinions harmonize. Patterson suggests beginning a conversation by highlighting the values and goals you both share.
- Don't get personal: Because politics are based largely on personal values and beliefs, there is no such thing a "right" or "wrong" way of interpreting the issues. If you're having trouble seeing things from your loved one's point of view, try asking yourself why a rational person would come to such a conclusion. You may still not agree with them—you don't have to—but Patterson says it's important to admit that their perspective is valid.
- Check your facts: Don't waste time debating factual information you can just look up on the Internet. Before you engage in a lengthy debate over the exact amount of money that President Obama's plan for reducing the deficit is allegedly supposed to save, make sure you and your loved one know what that number is.
- Let a sleeping argument lie: Once a political discussion has reached a natural stopping point, make sure it doesn't start back up again. Puhn advises quelling your desire to have the last word in an argument and suggests staying away from the phrase, "I just have one more thing to say about…"
- Learn how to apologize: So many people don't know how (or refuse) to apologize after they've said something wrong. Puhn gives three guidelines for effective apologies: embellish the wrong ("I made a really big mistake when…"), say why you're sorry, and tell the person how you're going to avoid making the same mistake in the future.
Political discussions don't have to be painful ordeals. In fact, they can be a great way for aging Americans and their adult children to share opinions and learn more about one another.
Just remember to approach any conversation, political or not, with the goal of listening, rather than altering the other person's opinion.
"Election season is not about changing a loved one's mind—unless they're running for president," Puhn says, "Politics aren't such a big deal, put your relationship first."