Politics and religion—two traditionally taboo topics at the dinner table, or so many of us were taught. Nevertheless, many Thanksgivings have seen tensions bubble under the surface – or even boil over – when those maxims were ignored.
While strategies for conflict resolution are everywhere in the workplace, they’re much harder to use in family settings, where roles and historic patterns of communication can be very brittle. Yet, sometimes challenging these old taboos can be healthy, as Christopher Love wrote in Public Discourse:
“Family discussions about sensitive topics are important. In an age increasingly marked by incivility, we need places where we can learn (or relearn) the practice of civil disagreement—that is, the art of disputing others’ ideas in ways that respect those persons’ intrinsic worth. Family life affords such a place.”
If you’re nervous about a challenging conversation with family members, consider the following suggestions from a range of family experts:
1. Examine your motivations. Are you genuinely interested in understanding your family member, or are you trying to win an argument or change the other person’s mind? If that’s your goal, you’re not likely to achieve it at the dinner table. As Dale Carnegie wrote, “Nine times out of ten, an argument ends with each of the contestants more firmly convinced than ever that he is absolutely right.”
2. Ask yourself if it’s worth it. For many of us, we don’t see certain family members often, and possibly only once a year at a reunion or holiday gathering. With so little time, ask yourself if broaching a controversial subject or engaging in a stressful political discussion is worth it if you won’t see them very often anyway.
3. During a discussion, offer ground rules—lightly. Ground rules, like “no interrupting” and “no personal attacks,” govern the process, rather than the content of a conversation, and can be very helpful. However, in a family setting, you’re not the facilitator, and you may be resented if you come off heavy-handed. Try something casual like, “How about we let everyone speak before any of us responds?”
4. Listen to understand. Many of us think we’re good listeners but spend a lot of “listening” time waiting to jump in with our opinions. Hard as it is to put our own agenda aside, we lose nothing by seeking to understand what the other person means. This action alone helps to lower the heat at the dinner table.
Try paraphrasing what you’re hearing from the other person, and ask your family members to do the same for you. You might say, for instance, “I’m worried you might be taking this the wrong way. What did you hear me say?”
5. Ask questions to find out where the other person is coming from. The best questions come from a place of humility and curiosity. For example: “Can you tell me more about how you arrived at that point of view?” Or, “It sounds like you’re very passionate about immigration. What makes you feel so strongly?”
The goal is to get below the level of political discourse, to the deep personal experiences that lead each of us to the points of view we embrace. Our political perspectives are not just abstract ideas we hold; they’re the outer reflection of a deep universal need. According to Marshall Rosenberg, the founder of nonviolent communication and a book on the subject, all human beings are trying to honor universal values and needs, ones we can all relate to.
For example, your cousin’s love of guns and membership in the NRA may have less to do with safety, security and love of family, and more about his experience of once being threatened by someone with a gun. Bit by bit, his story begins to make more sense to you. While you express those needs differently, you can now better understand them.
6. Look for places of agreement, however small. Negotiators call this “accumulating yeses.” For example, you could say, “Sounds like we both agree welfare reform is important.”
7. Use “I” statements and avoid labels. Imagine being called a racist. Instinctively, you’d probably reply, defensively, “No, I’m not.” The dialogue goes nowhere. Words like “racist,” “homophobic,” and other labels are communication dead ends. Instead, use “I” statements, such as, “As a teacher, I find the parents of my Latino students to be very respectful of me.”
9. Don’t answer baiting questions. Restate your perspective, and if you’re volleyed a provocative comment, don’t return it, suggests Braver Angels, an organization “uniting red and blue Americans in a working alliance to depolarize America.”
10. Stay in touch with your body. Take care of yourself physically. Pay attention to your breath. Notice the sensation of sitting on your chair. Especially important, don’t drink too much, and if others continue to drink, either tactfully try to bring the conversation to a close, or stop participating. As we all know, alcohol escalates emotions.
You can also try any of your other favorite strategies for exiting a conversation, such as washing the dishes, playing with the kids or a pet, or suggesting a walk. Just moving the body helps, especially outside, where fresh air and the smell of nature can be a tonic.
While controversial topics can create stress and tension – and even emotional separation – in the relationships with our loved ones, remember one important truth: While at times our differences with family members seem irreconcilable, usually we have long bonds with them, and these bonds are worth preserving and protecting.