Helpful advice for civil conversation
Thanksgiving is all about just that: giving thanks. During such a divisive climate in the United States, however, the dreaded talk about politics is bound to come up at some Thanksgiving dinner tables. In order to ease the tension, Kim Gearin and Lisa Erickson of Better Angels have some advice to depolarize those conversations during the holiday.
Better Angels is an organization created after the 2016 election with the intention of bringing people together with conflicting political viewpoints and focusing on civil conversation. By focusing on commonalities, and not on changing minds, people soon realize that they are not all enemies.
Despite leaning in different directions of the political spectrum, Gearin and Erickson are able to bring those ideas to table and even argue that maybe they don’t belong there in the first place.
“I would suggest that the dinner table is not the best time and place for political conversation,” says Gearin. “You might decide ahead of time to not have a political conversation over Thanksgiving dinner, and instead talk about gratitude and family. That isn’t to say you can’t have political conversations about pressing issues when you’re all together, but maybe not during mealtime, in part because other people are captive in your conversation.”
While talking ahead of time to avoid political talk may work for some circumstances, Erickson argues that being stuck at the table during those conversations might be the reason they emerge during the holiday.
“To Kim’s point, I think the reason it comes up is because you have that captive audience,” she says. “You know that they’re not going to leave. I’ve experienced conversations where people seem to feel like it’s their opportunity to say something. Maybe it’s a safer environment than at the workplace, or out with friends, because it’s family, and it usually ends up getting a little heated.”
Sometimes conversations like this are unavoidable and do get “heated” according to Erickson. In the event that the issues come up during Thanksgiving, and there’s no way out, Gearing and Erickson have ways to ensure that a civil discussion can be had despite conflicting ideas.
“If you were to talk about politics, it should be more about listening and giving people opportunities to express their concerns and then validating those concerns,” says Gearin. “It’s all about understanding. By disagreeing with somebody right out of the gate, you create this environment of animosity toward one another where you could instead really listen, say ‘thank you for sharing’ and then move on to a better topic.”
To understand is to listen to someone despite differing opinions. In order to do that properly, that person has to join a conversation without projecting their beliefs, according to Erickson.
“One way to approach difficult political conversations right now is not to enter with the intention of persuading someone to believe as you do,” she says. “That’s one of the principles of Better Angels. We have to enter these conversations seriously wanting to know what people think and why. You might find that you may not have common ground on policy, but you might have common ground on the future.”
In the event that those conversations do become hostile, there are ways to recognize it and to douse the tension when the problem arises.
“If someone is escalating the situation by raising their voice, or using ‘gotcha’ language, that’s not part of a conversation aimed at understanding each other,” says Gearin. “So, if you’re in a conversation with someone who is getting agitated, loud, and angry it’s okay to say, ‘I don’t want to be a part of this conversation anymore’ and to remove yourself.”
This method might work to deescalate a political conversation when involved in one, but there are also those caught in the crossfire of these conversations who can take control of the situation to turn the holiday back to friends and family.
“If you’re just an observer, which is nine times out of ten, you can actually and interrupt and redirect, saying something like, ‘Maybe this conversation should be finished later.’ Then, maybe you can set up a time that the conversation can be continued away from the dinner table.”
For the more than 50 percent of Americans surveyed who dread the thought of Thanksgiving politics, Better Angels has plenty of advice, including a document titled “For Thanksgiving Conversations” that can be found on better-angels.org.
“No political conversation and no party is more important than family ties,” says Gearin. “It might take being assertive and stepping in and redirect the conversation, or it might mean talking respectfully about the issues if they come up, but it’s important to remember that this is a time to be with friends, and family, and to be thankful for everything we have.”