Healing family divisions from the trauma of 2020 starts with listening to people you disagree with, experts say

Brialle Ringer is a racial equity partner of Living Room Conversations, an organization that facilitates community conversations to help people bridge their differences and understand each other. She has seen the power of conversations as people who disagree on controversial issues listen to understand each other’s experiences rather than debate to win one another over to their point of view.

The trauma of 2020 made Ringer wonder if those concepts could work in her own family.

Ringer’s mom is white and her dad is Black. She grew up around her mother’s family in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, in a community without much diversity. Ringer felt different much of the time as a child and teenager and was sometimes uncomfortable, but she said she didn’t have the words to explain how she felt.

“I left to go to college, and I had a lot of eye-opening experiences about race,” Ringer said. “As I learned more about a lot of things, I got a new lens to view my experience of my upbringing and the place I grew up, and I realized that there were some things that were racist.”

Ringer’s family, without that lens, didn’t see the same problems, and Ringer felt the distance grow between her and her family as they supported former President Trump and disagreed with the Black Lives Matter movement.

Then the pandemic happened, Ringer’s mother needed help with some health problems and Ringer moved back to the UP for a few months — for the longest stretch of time she had been back with her family in years.

Leaning into discomfort to foster understanding

The family’s different feelings regarding racial justice were pushed to the forefront as she was home after George Floyd’s death and the racial protests of last summer.

“I was like, ‘OK, I’m here at this time for a reason,'” said Ringer. “I decided that I should lean into the differences and lean into the discomfort to have conversations with my family.”

She invited several family members to a living room conversation about race, and some of her closest family members agreed to participate.

A few days before the conversation was scheduled, another family member posted something on Facebook that Ringer didn’t feel she could “just scroll past.”

“They posted, ‘I support my black friends, but I don’t support BLM, just like I support my white friends, but not the KKK,'” said Ringer. “Several of my family members had liked the post, and I commented that as a Black person in your family, seeing this doesn’t make me feel supported.”

Ringer also mentioned in her comment that she would love to take the conversation offline, and again invited her family to her living room conversation.

The day before the conversation was scheduled, Ringer went to a family gathering where she was confronted by one of her aunts, who believed Ringer had called her family racist in the Facebook comment.

“I was certain I didn’t call her racist because I was very mindful about the language I used,” said Ringer. “I said I was just trying to create conversations in the family, but she told me not to speak to her, that our relationship was over and to get off her property.”

Although Ringer was upset by both the Facebook post and the confrontation, the events helped her frame her feelings in a conversation the next day with some of her close relatives.

Changing family culture to understand each other’s differences

One of Ringer’s aunts asked if any incidents had happened when Ringer was growing up to make her feel as if she wasn’t welcome. “She told me that everyone had always loved and adored me, that they never thought of me as a Black girl, that I was always just a girl that they loved.”

“I said, ‘I get that, but I am a Black girl. And that makes a difference. And we never talked about it.”

Ringer and her family members didn’t see eye-to-eye following the conversation, but they came away from it feeling as if they had been heard, and it was a start.

Ringer is relieved that the door has been opened in her family to having these difficult conversations, and that open door resulted in a conversation with another aunt at Thanksgiving.

Instead of debating each other or arguing, they used the conversation tools from Living Room Conversations — to “listen to understand” rather than convince, to speak based on your own experiences and to look for common ground.

“She shared a lot of things I didn’t agree with, and I sat and listened and then asked some follow-up questions,” said Ringer. “People are so used to debating in conversations. To sit and listen is kind of like being a fish out of water, but we were just trying to understand each other.”

Ringer said she and her aunt didn’t come out of the conversation agreeing with each other on many points, but they listened to each other and started mending their relationship. They also got past the fear they had both felt for several years which had prevented them from having meaningful conversations.

“I want to keep getting more people in my family to have these conversations. Hopefully it’s changing the culture of my family to see that we might be scared to talk, but it will be OK,” said Ringer. “It’s OK for us to disagree, but it’s not OK for us to disconnect.”

Understanding why political disagreements feel so personal

Ringer’s colleague at Living Room Conversations, Becca Kearl, also found herself using the organization’s tips in her personal life during the trauma of 2020.

Kearl said she and her husband put a political sign in their yard for the first time because of their strong feelings during the 2020 election. Both her parents and her in-laws had strong feelings in favor of the other candidate. Kearl said she spoke to her own parents throughout campaign season, and she felt like they all understood each other.

However, she had never spoken to her mother-in-law about her political beliefs, and she could feel the tension whenever she noticed her mother-in-law looking at the sign. Her mother-in-law told Kearl’s husband they needed to have a living room conversation.

Although they never sat down for a formal conversation, Kearl went on a long walk with her mother-in-law to talk about their feelings.

The talk helped her realize why her mother-in-law felt hurt to see how clearly her son and daughter-in-law disagreed with her political stances. “She explained to me that as a parent, we pass on traditions and values, and she felt like her kids weren’t living those values,” said Kearl. “I talked about how even if we share the same values, we can make different decisions.”

“I had been terrified to talk to her about religion and politics and race because I know how passionate she is. I was worried about how she would see me after we talked,” said Kearl. “But it ended up being really great.”

Tools meant to heal communities can help families too

While Ringer and Kearl have both found the principles of Living Room Conversations to be helpful in navigating their family disagreements, doing Living Room conversations with family is not something they would have recommended — that is, until 2020.

In one of the group’s conversation guides, they explain that discussions about difficult issues are often easier among strangers. When family history and emotional baggage are involved, there are higher stakes for disagreements, and people who know each other are less likely to follow conversational rules than are strangers who want to be polite with each other.

“There’s a different dynamic in families. You just naturally bring personal history into whatever conversation you have. But we started having this increased demand for people engaging in these conversations with their family during the pandemic,” said Kearl. “So many relationships had been damaged by so many things, and people who were isolated from their family because of the pandemic wanted to still have meaningful conversations with each other even if they couldn’t gather together.”

The guide also lays out the core skills that people should employ when they’re having difficult conversations with each other:

  • People should listen to each other “without an intention to respond, refute, or defend.”
  • They should “give the person the benefit of the doubt” that their intentions are good.
  • They should “show curiosity by asking questions and learning more about the person’s life experiences that have shaped their perspective.”
  • They should be respectful and kind.

Closer to home, the Milwaukee-based Zeidler Group has been facilitating community conversations about controversial issues since 2005. And they have similar recommendations for what they call their connected conversations.

Sharon McMurray is the program director for The Zeidler Group.

“The main thing is you have to listen first without interrupting,” said Sharon McMurray, the Zeidler Group’s program director. “And you have to speak for yourself and your own experiences, not try to generalize to what other people think and not try to convince anyone of your beliefs. You’re trying to understand why people believe the things they do.”

McMurray said having these types of conversations is useful for groups in the community, as well as for families and one-on-one interactions.

A common problem with conversations about difficult topics is that people associate their conversation partner’s beliefs with those of more well-known people or organizations they disagree with or have a negative opinion of.

But, with the Zeidler Group’s connected conversations and Living Room Conversations, people agree to just talk about their own views, to just share their own experiences and to trust that other people are doing the same.

“In these conversations, people can say, ‘I hear you. I hear how you feel,” said McMurray. “When you’re just speaking for yourself, there’s no room for confusion about what you mean. People can heal their relationships when they’re not talking for the world.”

Your story

Have your relationships been damaged by the traumatic events of 2020?

Have you had disagreements about politics, racial justice issues or COVID restrictions?

Are you working with your friends or family to understand each other and to heal?