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Deploying empathy at family gatherings

Deploy Empathy
Deploy Empathy
It’s Thanksgiving today in the US, and that usually means gatherings with loved ones (perhaps in person, on video calls, or a combination).
And gatherings, especially of the family type, can lead to arguments about politics and vaccines and everything else.
I’ve been asked a few times how people could apply the tactics and tools of Deploy Empathy to political arguments with family members. (Justin Jackson memorably asked me how he could use it to argue with his aunt from Ohio on Facebook.)
And I have two answers for that.
The first is, yes, sure, you can use the tools from the book to better understand your uncle’s perspective. You can listen, mirror, ask follow-ups, and dive into why his extreme-to-you political positions make sense to him and how he came to see things that way, while not necessarily agreeing with him.
You could even try to do what’s called “motivational interviewing” and use their underlying reasons to ease them into your point of view, as I mentioned on the Wistia podcast.
You could do that. Especially if you’re feeling like you’ve got an excess amount of emotional energy to have that kind of conversation.
And who knows, maybe you making them feel understood and heard will finally get their gears turning and on a path to realizing the Moon landing wasn’t staged.
But there’s also another direction you can go.
Using empathy does not simply mean that you have to listen to what others say all the time. Just because you know the tactics of empathy now doesn’t mean you’re obligated to use them. It doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice yourself to others and be their emotional dumping ground.
I strongly recommend having boundaries with how you use empathy.
In a product context, “boundaries” means that you don’t pursue every single problem that a customer presents you with. You only pursue the ones that look like good business opportunities where you could realistically build something the customer would find valuable and usable.
(My recent interview with Summit founder Matt Wensing is a great example of following some problems and pivoting away from others.)
At a personal level, having boundaries means you know what’s good for you and you stick to it—even when it might make other people unhappy or they might be happier if you didn’t enforce them.
Boundaries are a way of protecting yourself.
For example, say you have a friend who always asks to borrow money and never repays it, and really only talks to you when they need money. What do you do when they, yet again, appear out of the blue to ask to borrow money? You might feel like you have to say yes, but you’re allowed to say no. Even though they would be upset with you.
So how does this apply to holiday family gatherings and deploying empathy and all that?
If your uncle or your aunt or parent or whomever tries to goad you into a conversation about a political topic, you don’t have to use empathy or argue with them. You are allowed to walk away from an argument.
Every argument is an option, and you’re allowed to say no. (In fact, this has basically been my New Year’s Resolution this year, and it’s been a tremendous quality of life improvement.)
Perhaps you use empathy in your thoughts to yourself and see that the person wants to have a conversation with you but for whatever reason doesn’t know how to do so constructively at the current moment and is instead seeking conflict. (Conflict-seeking behavior can often be a maladaptive way to seek connection.)
You’re allowed to say, “You know, Uncle John, I gather you’re really passionate about that, yet I’d love to talk about something else. It’s been so long since we’ve talked, and I used to love the funny stories you told about taking your dog fishing. Were you able to get out fishing this summer?”
A formula you can use to get out of controversial conversations with family members is:
  • Acknowledge their interest and bid for connection
  • State your preference/boundary
  • (Optional, if you want to continue talking to them) Compliment them about something entirely different
  • Segue to safety
When you feel trapped in a conversation, remember that you are an adult who has agency and you are allowed to remove yourself from a situation you aren’t comfortable with.
Like this:
“Aunt Suzanne, such a big topic isn’t it! I gather you’ve really thought a lot about that, but I’d just love to take a break from all of that today. If you’ll excuse me, I need to go check on dessert/refill my water/go to the bathroom.”
What’s important here is that you don’t apologize for your boundary. You’re allowed to simply and firmly say “I’d rather not talk about politics."—saying "I’m sorry, I don’t want to talk about politics” weakens it.
Be firm and stand up for what’s good for you!

PS, while you're in the bathroom on your phone hiding from Aunt Suzanne...
Black Friday is hugely important for a lot of businesses, especially small ones. (Fun fact: it’s called Black Friday because it’s the day when retail businesses go “into the black” for the year, i.e. start to turn a profit after running the whole year in the red.)
I wrote Deploy Empathy as a soul-nourishing side project, so this week’s sale—2.99 for the Kindle, 19 for the paperback—is more of a fun way to get the book in more hands than anything. (If you do want to grab that deal, do so before midnight on Monday.) I can discount it so deeply, albeit only temporarily, because I already have a business that pays the bills.
But that isn’t the situation for a lot of indie entrepreneurs.
Buying a course, book, or software from a solo entrepreneur could mean they can buy nice Christmas or Hanukkah presents for their kids or finally take the leap into working for themselves full-time.
Whether you’re looking to learn how to use the no-code tool Bubble, need a gift for your little niece or nephew, want to improve your SEO, need to build some new habits, want to learn Japanese, or would love a more delightful way to debug PHP, there are plenty of great deals by wonderful creators and entrepreneurs.
So maybe while you’re hiding from your relatives in the bathroom anyway, take a few minutes to scan through this list of fantastic deals from wonderful little companies.
The Big Indie Maker Black Friday Sale!
I promise this is the last time I’ll mention Black Friday. Back to our normal programming next week. :)
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