Families with wide-ranging political views are expecting a tense Thanksgiving dinner this year. The divisive rhetoric and high level of emotion could spill over into holiday conversation, threatening to ruin the meal for some. It doesn’t have to, though. Political arguments at Thanksgiving can actually be an opportunity to learn some things about your family that you never knew before.
I’ll skip the most obvious tips, like limiting the amount of alcohol served or actively avoiding all political subjects until after dessert. That’s not bad advice, but it’s advice that depends on others’ cooperation, and it just won’t be well-received in some families. People won’t want to change family traditions all that much for the sake of keeping peace at the dinner table. Instead, these are things that you can do yourself, that don’t require the cooperation of others. We’ve all heard that oft-repeated phrase that change begins with you. If your family is like mine, you can assume that those with strong opinions before the election will have even stronger opinions now, and that you are not going to change anyone’s mind over Thanksgiving dinner. Relax and have fun. Realizing that this election hasn’t changed people fundamentally can be both a comfort and a frustration; these hints are meant to help you tip the scales in favor of comfort.
One caveat: If someone’s getting drunk or abusive, don’t use these techniques. Instead, do whatever it takes to protect yourself emotionally, and remove yourself as soon as you can. Otherwise, try the following:
Get curious. Motivational interviewing is a technique used by mental health clinicians to move people in the direction of positive self-change, but it can be used informally also, as a way to deepen your understanding of other people and their views. Asking questions, and then listening to the answers, is a sure way to prevent an emotionally-charged situation from escalating into an ugly fight. One type of question used in motivational interviewing, known as “values clarification”, can be really useful in getting your family to articulate the motivations behind some of the choices they’ve made, not only politically, but personally also. How does their candidate reflect their values? Have them talk about their valued principles, and about the values they’re hoping to see expressed over the next four years. Behind much of the talk about immigrants bringing crime and jobs going overseas, for instance, is a desire for security, safety, and rewarding, meaningful work. Bringing a broad, big-picture perspective to the conversation will get your family talking about their cherished ideals. That’s never a bad thing, and the conversation just might go to some unexpected places.
You can also have them paint a picture of “a day in the life”. What kind of life are they imagining for themselves, and for you, under the new administration? How will it be better? Talking about the details of the future will give you a good idea of what your family is hoping for, and will again shed light on what they value.
Retrace the steps that led your family to this moment. Think, as you listen, about what led this person to the beliefs that he or she has. You’re in a unique position, as someone who knows this person’s history better than any politician ever will, to understand what drives this other person’s beliefs and values. Look for, and ask about, the experiences that led this person to value the things he or she does. Were they treated unkindly by foreigners? Was there a high school brawl with a black or Latino student? Remember that your story is intertwined with your family’s; their story is your story. Some of you may have shared the same experiences, but come to different conclusions. Share those with them.
Stay away from facts and data. This is a hard one for most of us, I know. But the cold truth is that elections are won and lost based on emotions and imagery, and people make decisions the same way. No one wants to be that guy at a cocktail party who offers a constant stream of information, no matter how interesting the subject. The family dinner table is no different. National pride, greatness, compassion, greed, protection, self-preservation – all play upon the emotions and are expressed in images and symbols. Think about things that fire you up and get you excited – it’s rarely the information itself, but rather the meaning you give to that information, that inspires the most engagement.
Remember again that you are not going to change anyone’s mind, especially with information. You’re there to enjoy the company of your family and to get them to articulate what they value. You can express your opinions strongly and passionately, talk about what you value, and highlight all the ways in which your candidate embodies those values, but be sure to keep an emotional connection, both to your family and to your topic.
Involve the kids. Very young children who aren’t old enough to understand the topics can still be at the table. You can bounce your one-year-old on your knee while talking about Trump’s foreign policy or Clinton’s proposed health programs. Interact with them physically as you engage with your family intellectually. Doing so will have two effects: it will make the kids feel part of a grown-up conversation even if they don’t fully understand it, and it will keep a certain amount of civility in the discourse. If emotions get too hot or the language too strong, you can remind people that there are kids in the room. Remember that young children are always learning from adults’ behavior, even when they don’t understand conversation. If you express your ideals with sincerity and passion, they’ll grow up to do the same.
Older kids can be part of the conversation in the same ways that adults are. You can simplify some topics without talking down to them, bringing it back again to values and cherished ideals.
Let older people have the last word. You don’t have to agree with them. But remember that older people, particularly those who have led especially colorful or diverse lives, have many decades of experience that inform their opinions, and that should be given respect. Even when their facts are wrong. Even when they’ve drawn the wrong conclusions from their experiences. Don’t contradict them, verbally or nonverbally. All the things said above about people not changing their minds are even more true for people of advanced age. Older people have a truly amazing story to tell, and their gifts, in this society, are often profoundly underappreciated. Try to place their opinions in the context of a long and full life, and listen to them carefully, because if a word is missed or a story ignored, it may be gone forever.
Thanksgiving can be a tense time for families on opposite ends of the political spectrum. Holding your own with grace and confidence while still remaining curious about others can be one of the most difficult things to do, but it yields valuable rewards. Using these techniques will help you not only survive the Thanksgiving meal, but actually enjoy it, and you just might learn something about your family in the process.
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