May 15, 2021

Politics & News

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Opinion | How to Make Your Small Talk Big

2 min read

Ms. Daghlian is a life coach in San Francisco who identifies as a political liberal. After her mother developed dementia, Ms. Daghlian visited her family in Michigan more often. When her mother entered a facility in 2016, Ms. Daghlian had to spend time alone with her stepfather, a retired tool-and-die maker and conservative Baptist with whom she’d long had tension. “It was hard to escape politics and it was hard to escape that we had different politics,” she said.

But Ms. Daghlian noticed her stepfather trying to welcome her in. He usually had Fox News playing in the background, but without a word, he stopped turning it on when Ms. Daghlian was in the house. She appreciated the gesture. Instead, they’d watch “47 hours of ‘Family Feud,’ ” Ms. Daghlian recalled.

The outside world couldn’t be kept out completely. One night they were watching a presidential debate together, nervously. Finally, Ms. Daghlian said, “we both started laughing because we realized that in about 30 minutes or so, no one said a word to each other.”

That’s when Mr. Shankland just said out loud that he knew they disagreed, but her relationship really mattered to him. “He said it first,” Ms. Daghlian remembered. “That our relationship was definitely more important than politics.”

I asked him later what prompted him to establish these guardrails for their small talk. “I just let it out. It’s what I feel. You know, I’m not bashful about that,” he told me. “It all boils down to values. My value is just to have a friendship and peace with Pam. That was worth more than venting our feelings about politics. And I was the one who said that. But she came right back. That’s the way she feels too,” he added.

With that assurance in place, they started talking more about politics. Their differences are real and consequential, but they could now be curious about each other, and disagree openly, while knowing something was still bonding them.

So they were there for each other as the woman they both loved — his wife, her mother — died last summer. In the weeks after, Ms. Daghlian wrote to me, “George and I really have managed to put our bond first. I consider it one of the great achievements of my life, really.”

Anna Sale
2021-05-04 08:27:17

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