Yes, you can avoid stupid family arguments this holiday

Story highlights

  • Eric Liu: Ah, the holidays, a time to argue about politics with people you can't believe are related to you
  • As we prepare for the possibility of stormy civic squabbles, it's worth asking what we can do differently

Eric Liu is the founder of Citizen University and the author of several books, including "A Chinaman's Chance" and "The Gardens of Democracy." He was a White House speechwriter and policy adviser for President Bill Clinton. Follow him on Twitter: @ericpliu. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Ah, the holidays. A time to be with family. A time to fall into epic arguments about politics with people you can't believe are actually related to you.

Americans in recent decades have become ideologically self-sorting. More of us now live, work and socialize with people who share our political worldviews. There is a raw tribalism in political culture today that transcends elections. Which means that the holidays are one of the few remaining occasions when we are forced to confront and accommodate people who don't think like we do.
Eric Liu
As many of us prepare for the possibility of stormy civic squabbles this season, it's worth asking what we can do differently, not to avoid arguments altogether but to have less stupid ones. Perhaps even to have constructive ones.
    I recently got a lesson in how to do that simply by observing two strangers.
    On a flight last week from D.C. to Seattle, I was in the window seat. In the middle was a young man, a recent college graduate; in the aisle, an older man, perhaps around 60. As we all boarded we exchanged small talk about how crowded the plane was, and airlines today. Then I turned to my email and later to an Elmore Leonard novel.
    The other two began to converse, about many things but eventually about politics: guns, especially, but also government regulation generally, and voting. It turned out they had sharply divergent political views. I made a choice to stay out of it even though they were discussing issues dear to me. But I kept half an ear on them.
    Without disclosing who held what views, I can say that the older man began with a tone that was self-assured and knowledgeable to the point of being patronizing. "You're what's called a 'low-information voter,'" he explained. The younger man did seem out of his depth at first, admitting he didn't have a lot of facts at his disposal. In the face of his counterpart's mini-lectures, he was helpless for a while.
    But then, about 30 minutes in, the young man pivoted. He began to point out flaws in the other man's arguments -- sometimes noting gaps in logic or the overuse of certain kinds of anecdotes; sometimes asking about the kinds of emotions or experiences that had generated the other man's opinions. He did so with humility and gentleness. Not to play gotcha. Just to invite a different kind of conversation. And the elder man, to his credit, was open to this. He responded in earnest.
    From that point on — and for at least another hour — they had a more authentic give-and-take, a discussion based not on demonizing the other or rehashing talking points but truly hearing each other. Neither one changed his mind as far as I could tell. But the vibe of the conversation had evolved over the course of the flight, from cautious courtesy to political posturing to mutual respect.
    For the final stretch of the flight they got off politics and discussed skiing and the Northwest. It wasn't until we landed that I decided to engage. I admitted with a smile that I'd eavesdropped a bit. I explained that my work is about teaching the art of powerful citizenship. And I said that while I generally sided with one of them and not the other, together they were an example for others in how to disagree well.
    The two men, younger and older, looked pleasantly surprised and they thanked me for the acknowledgment. That led all three of us into another short conversation as we taxied into the gate about what it would take to replicate what they'd done.
    Given the tenor of our Trumped-up age of reckless provocation, I was heartened by this experience. I drew from it some lessons that we can perhaps apply to family gatherings this holiday, and to civic life in all seasons.
    First, remember to humanize the other side. These two started and ended with conversation that was about their interests and experiences. They saw each other as people before they took on the roles of opponents.
    Second, check your defensiveness. Most people, when told by someone that there are fallacious patterns in their thinking, get into a defensive, self-justifying stance. The older guy did not do that. He was willing to hear it and to consider it. His nondefensiveness was contagious. It opened up more channels for better discussion.
    Third, persist -- not to prevail but to learn. I was impressed that the younger man did not give up on the conversation when it seemed he was getting crushed early on. He didn't quit and put on his headphones. He stayed with it. Yet his motivation was not to score points and "catch up." It was to understand.
    Perhaps the simplest lesson was this: Engagement pays. Each of us had made a decision to lean in. I watched them change as they argued over several hours. And when at last I voiced my admiration for them, I felt myself change. I felt part of something good, more than if I'd just kept my observations to myself.
    Which is why I'm telling you about it, too. My airplane interaction, like most of your dinner table discussions, will not change the world. But ultimately there is only one way to get a politics that's worthy of our full humanity. And that is to engage like full humans. That's a resolution for a better new year.