This Thanksgiving millions of Americans will gather around the family table to eat, give thanks, catch up – and in many cases avoid conversation about religion and politics or take turns in the hot seat amid conflicting viewpoints. As impeachment hearings take a break for the holidays, politics will not.
If you’re eager to engage family members in a conversation about politics, you’re likely in a distinct minority. According to a CBS News poll, only 15 percent of Americans look forward to discussing politics at the Thanksgiving table. If you know that you and Uncle Fred don’t see eye-to-eye on political issues, this could be a knock-out, drag-out Thanksgiving.
No matter how politically savvy we think we are, political and religious conversations around the holiday dinner table are fraught with pitfalls. Families of faith are not monolithic in their politics, ideology or theology. In today’s polarized environment, there are bound to be differing opinions on the impeachment hearings, the 2020 presidential election, the threat of climate change, LGBTQ-related issues and other topics.
A few days ago, I read an article on “Surviving Thanksgiving Dinner Conversation.” I was struck by the pessimistic tone. “Surviving” Thanksgiving? Are our conversations and family dynamics really going to be so awful that people just want to survive Thanksgiving? This American holiday is a time to connect with family and friends, to be thankful for what we have and to celebrate God’s blessings. We do not have to survive Thanksgiving like it is some endurance marathon. Instead of merely hoping to survive Thanksgiving, here are four suggestions for thriving in our family conversations.
1. Refuse to make enemies. As someone who is trained in rhetoric and debate, there is a side of me that always wants to be right (and to “win” an argument). According to this debate tactic, if I’m right, you’re wrong. Unfortunately, this type of right-and-wrong thinking creates enemies.
Rather than making enemies at your family gathering, consider how Jesus refused to make enemies. In the Gospel accounts, Jesus was fully aware that the Pharisees were plotting against him; yet he chose to eat, dialogue and spend time with those many would call his enemies. Think about ways the family Thanksgiving conversation can be an opportunity to stay in relationship with those with whom you strongly disagree about some subjects. It’s okay to say, whether literally or in effect, “I reject that idea or viewpoint, but I don’t reject you.”
2. Ask questions. Jesus was a master at asking questions. The Gospels record more than 300 times when Jesus asked a question. At a heated dinner exchange, Jesus asked, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save a life or to kill?” (Mark 3:4). For many fastidious religious leaders, the day of rest included refraining from healing. However, Jesus had a way of framing what was really at issue: following the heart of the law as opposed to the letter of the law.
Questions offered in a spirit of honest listening rather than winning a debate have a way of disarming bias, cutting through peripheral issues and reducing defensiveness. Asking exploratory questions can help us to understand why someone feels so passionately about an issue.
3. Use “I” rather than “you” language. Basic relationship counseling encourages couples and others to speak from “I” language as a way to take personal responsibility for their feelings within the conflict of the relationship. Using “you” language in a conversation creates an accusatory tone.
“Families of faith are not monolithic in their politics, ideology or theology.”
The same strategy can be used in conversation around the family Thanksgiving table. “I” language avoids the accusatory or confrontational tone while focusing on what you believe. The more you can speak from “I,” the less chance there is of the other person feeling they are being attacked. Communicating with “I” statements sends a message that you are taking responsibility for your opinions, beliefs and actions and not anyone else’s.
4. If all else fails, walk away. Let’s be honest. Not every conversation is civil or even safe. There may be a setting when the conservation becomes so toxic or out of control that you have to remove yourself from the space. It is perfectly acceptable to excuse yourself from the table or a conversation. However, be sure to resist the temptation to make a statement, verbally or non-verbally, on the way out of the room. Leaving the room in dramatic fashion will only fan the flame.
Remember that you can only control your thoughts and actions, not someone else’s. It is always acceptable to say something like “I prefer if we talk about something else” or “I’m not in the right frame of mind to talk about this right now.” Pushing ahead in a heated argument often does more harm than good. Think: Is it worth it for me to damage a family relationship over a disagreement?
Your Thanksgiving conversations do not have to be a source of bitterness and resentment. If you find yourself in the heat of a difficult discussion, focus on taking control of the only thing you can control – yourself and your response. Refusing to make enemies, asking questions, and speaking from “I” statements allows you to shape conversations for your good and your family’s good.
This Thanksgiving, refuse to hunker down in “survival” mode. Instead, look for ways you can help family conversations – and relationships – to thrive.