‘Tis the season to travel great distances, to break bread with our loving families and friends, and to argue with them. It’s a time when we resume our childhood roles, and the oldest brother is suddenly in charge again, even if his little sister is 42. Cousin Larry, the successful businessman with the beautiful family, cannot escape the painful reminder from Aunt Linda that he used to be “so chubby.” Ben’s always late, grandpa drinks too much, that skirt isn’t doing her any favors, oh look at the baby! And inevitably this season, someone is going to bring up…
Whoo, boy. Are we in for it or what? I’ve heard, anecdotally, that there are families who have made alternate holiday plans because of the Trump/Hillary divide. Millenials, in particular, don’t want to face Dad and his friends in the aftermath. How can it have gotten this far? When we argue and avoid or fracture our families, we are giving the politicians what they want. Despite what they say, politicians (yes– even yours) need a divided republic. Why? It’s good for business. A unified electorate would kill off one of the parties. That’s bad for both sides.
Why? Well, obviously the losing party still needs support. But the winning party needs an enemy. If it has total support, it doesn’t have a strong opponent to blame when it doesn’t get stuff done. And, be assured, politicians don’t want to get too much done. That hurts their chances of re-election. Whatever they say and do can and will be used against them in the court of public opinion.
When the subject of politics comes up at the Thanksgiving table (and it will), know this to be true: You cannot convince anyone of anything. You cannot win the argument. Blame “cognitive dissonance” and “confirmation bias,” my nominees for TIME magazine’s Things of The Year 2016.
People hate being told they are wrong—on line for sure, but especially face-to-face. I know I do. Even if your debater has the absolute best of intentions, being corrected makes you feel smaller. Being told you are wrong sucks, doesn’t it? Trust me when I tell you no one at the Thanksgiving dinner table is going to say “Oh, thank you for disabusing me of that notion.” Nope, they will resent you, and steal the last marshmallow-covered yam.
Try this, instead: listen.
Listen to what your friends and family have to say, whether it’s gun-toting Uncle Pete or your NPR-quoting neighbor. Draw them out. “Tell me more” are the three best words to use in a conversation. They make the person feel important and valued. They should feel valued! And when you cannot handle any more of the tell-me-more, trot this one out: “I hadn’t thought of it that way.” This might be harder to swallow than Grandma Marge’s green bean casserole, but give it a whirl for Thanksgiving’s sake.
“But I hate their candidate and everything that person stands for!” you say (or think really loudly with eye rolling). “Racist! Criminal! Chauvinist! Hypocrite!” OK. What are you trying to accomplish here? This is Thanksgiving, friends. It’s a time to pull a hammie tossing around a football, to fry a turkey in the driveway, to wonder how early is too early for cocktails, and to appreciate the people you love.
Still, you’re entitled to speak your mind. Here, it’s all about framing. I find the best way to get my point across is to acknowledge the other person’s point first. Then build upon it indirectly. Here’s an example:
AUNT IDA: I voted for Donald Trump. I just like him. He speaks his mind and he isn’t just another politician. That Hillary. She was stiff and I never trusted her. That email thing. The Clinton’s are so slippery and dishonest. I like that Trump is going to bring back jobs, so your Cousin Sarah can work again.
YOU: I hear you. Cousin Sarah has had a hard time finding work. But you know, these past couple of months, I’ve been thinking about the marches for women’s rights in the ‘70s. Growing up, you talked about the ERA and it made me realize women weren’t always considered equal to men. I learned that from you, Aunt Ida. I’m worried about how Donald Trump talks about women and the off-hand, demeaning remarks. That kind of talk–how did you handle that when you heard it in the office when you were working?
Aunt Ida is going to give you an earful about how she got pinched on the butt and called “sweetheart”– that’s how it was in her day. She may admit she didn’t like it, in which case you have an opening to talk a little more about the topic. But you have to keep the discussion about her (or Cousin Sarah). You’re not going to change her mind about those emails. But you might be able to personalize the discussion. And she may think a little more about it going forward.
This is how we can disagree without being hostile. This is how we can attempt to respect each other, and get through 8 hours of food prep for 23 minutes of eating without hurt feelings. Half of the voting electorate is not crazy. Sorry. We’re not all “loony liberals” or “crazy Republicans.” We’re not in separate baskets; we’re in this together. We need to give thanks for understanding. We need to reassure each other we still love our family and friends, no matter how they voted, no matter who holds the office. Your ballot choices shouldn’t spell the end of your relationship. Let it be the start of a conversation.
Happy Thanksgiving, friends. Approach this one gently.