How To Have Difficult Conversations This Thanksgiving and Beyond

Oh boy. As if it weren’t hard enough to talk about deep things with our loved ones at times. This holiday season is ripe with the potential of deep and hateful disagreement, of closets opening, true feelings unveiled, accusations, blame, and more division if we are not vigilant. I know many on both sides are feeling ok with division, but if we are to truly begin to face our shadows as a nation, that arms-crossed, "I'm done" tactic has a finality that doesn't speak to the complexity of the situation.

Many are feeling emboldened. To speak up, finally, and say what they really think. For some, that means standing up against oppressive systems on every conceivable level, in full revolutionary mode. For some, it means airing hatred in the open air for all to see. There as many places in-between as there are Americans, and I am willing to bet that most err somewhere in the middle, somewhere where things aren’t so complicated and tough. The problem is they are.

Even if your family is largely liberal or largely conservative, divergent opinions on core issues are bound to arise. Many people are going to insist on “no politics” at the dinner table. The “oh no, we aren’t goin' there” line is bound to show up.

But it’s time to go there America, and for many families this weekend, it’s gonna go there. So here are some tips for not just surviving but thriving (if just surviving is the best you can do, it is ok- safety first). But, I think that if we can open up a conversation this weekend and beyond with those we love who differ from us, if we can allow that vulnerability- we could see some much-needed cracking open of a painful national gridlock.

We are in desperate need of artful, compassionate and open-minded debate in this country. The lack of it combined with the ubiquitous arrival of technology allows us to feel as though we are sort of in all these conversations at once and engaged. Really though, there is no technology invented yet that can replace the incredibly nuanced and effective original technology of person-to-person, real time conversation.

In my view, it is lack of exposure and real dialogue, fear of the unknown and massive, massive judgement and generalization that causes minds to close, and when it manifests as oppressive to whole populations, there is a deep need to educate and fascilitate brave conversations and exposure to difference.

There is too much at stake to not discuss the state of the union amidst family gatherings, again unless you truly feel unsafe. Here are some steps on having courageous conversations about triggering and highly sensitive topics.

#1 Assess the situation.

Before you even get to your family gathering, take stock of your loved ones and assess where on the spectrum both you and they are. It’s so, so easy to lump vast populations of people together and stick grand labels onto them. There are people who very begrudgingly voted for Clinton and those who have been life-long supporters of her. There are those that voted for Obama the last two cycles and this time opted for Trump. There are people who wrote in Bernie, or for the first time in their life didn’t vote at all. There are lifelong Republicans that very begrudgingly voted for Trump. And then, there’s the fucking Klan. And a million other dots along the arc of beliefs, choices, and personal truths and histories. So start by humanizing your family as best you can and being as aware as possible before you arrive where along the curve of open-mindedness and willingness to converse they are.

#2. Never Work Uphill.

I had a very wise graduate professor who spent his life working as a high-level intercultural communication consultant (i.e. helping diplomats understand each other). He also referred to this arc, where we find so many levels of understanding, acceptance, tolerance, awareness of/obliviousness to privilege, racism, love, hatred.  

He said, rightly, that when folks are operating at a really low awareness level, a really fearful and low vibration, when they are truly bigoted (mysoginistic, homophobic, xenophobic, et al), then you have to really step away from that hill. You won’t change them; you will waste precious energy trying, and may even subject yourself to abuse of one kind or another. Look for people who are on the edge, and meet them at that edge. Limit time with people living inside of their fears and feeling of powerlessness so extreme that they are oppressive to others in overt ways.

#3. Listen and Ask; Ask and Listen.

Many liberals are feeling very intolerant of intolerant conservatives. 60 million people have been labeled bigots, xenophobes and supporters of sexual assault- without question. Many conservatives are feeling as though their liberal loved ones are just so full of themselves, all the time. There has been a lot of talk from the right about the left “just accepting” the results and not being “cry-babies.”

The truth is a complicated, messy, highly subjective affair. But there is no room in this nation for continued bigotry, systemic oppression, homophobia, the marginalization or humiliation of entire religions and ethnic communities, or a passive and unapologetic rhetoric around the treatment and rights of women and girls. Every human and loving being for that matter deserves a high degree of dignity. And yet the how, when, where ... these are rich subjects for debate in the ultimate national experiment. 

All of us must ask ourselves, “what don’t I know” about any other’s situation. Here is where we must ask and keep asking until we glean some insight into why so much integrity was set aside in order to elect such a controversial figure. And if we are among those that voted for him, perhaps we need to listen much more deeply to a majority who is more diverse than the namely white popultation that voted for him yet which also has been just as generalized and over-simplified in its reaction to the election results.

It takes guts and deep maturity and incredible patience to listen and non-violently question those whose views we find loathsome. But, question we must. And listen we must.

Listening means we are fully focused on what the other person is saying, rather than plotting our revenge comments while they speak. It means we genuinely see a complex human with all kinds of pains, conditioning and in some cases even brainwashing sitting before us, but nevertheless a loved-one and as sacred as those groups whom we so fervently wish to protect. Listening means seeing, really.

Questioning works best when the questions are open-ended and free from snark. Asking a question that you already think you know the answer to- people feel that, and they shut down. Come from a place of genuine curiosity. It will take you much farther. Here are some open-ended questions (snark free delivery, again, is essential):

1. What do you hope to get out of a Trump presidency?

2. What do you think the implications might be of enacting a required registry for an entire religion? Does it feel constitutional? Do you think any group so large (1 billion) can be truly generalized about?

3. What if (you, your child, grandchild or someone else in the family) had suffered (discrimination, assault, deportation, etc.) because of our religion/skin color/sexual orientation/gender? What if white children were coming home from school by the dozens crying and afraid?

4. Have you ever read Peggy McIntosh’s list of white privileges? I happen to have a copy here with me ;) if you’d like to take a look.

5. Ask me anything. Is there anything you just don’t get about …..?

4. Don’t Over-Drink.

I know, the thing we all want to do most! But if you know your family is heavy-headed and coming from many different points along that spectrum of belief, perhaps this one year, just chill back on the pre-meal whiskey. Wait until the triptophane has kicked in a little to really catch a buzz. Alcohol and meaningful debate do not mix. Alcohol and listening are like oil and water. Take heed.

5. Practice non-violent communication.

The simplest steps are acknowledging, empathizing, and stating your need/belief/question. For example:

I understand that 911 was very terrifying and that it seems like it’s been a non-stop war every since with an ever-present, looming threat, and I too feel fearful and overwhelmed at times, but I don’t think the answer is to subject whole religions to discriminatory and oppressive practices. I believe that is un-American and in fact, I believe such actions put our national security more at risk.

Disclaimer: Obviously, I am super liberal. Nevertheless, there is so much to know about each and every one of us.

We are dynamic beings tangled in complicated social contracts. It’s time we name those contracts, and start to change ones that don’t offer dignity and equality to all people as well as to the planet. 

I wish everyone if not the best Thanksgiving, one of the more interesting and perhaps, most healing. Try to love each other. Try to conjure up respect while never compromising your dearest-held values and integrity. Say a prayer for Standing Rock, and all those original Americans.

Try to reach across the table and remember: the ancient practice of breaking bread with our community is not about putting on a pretty face and sweeping unpleasant shadows under the rug. It is very much about treaties in times of war. It is about acknowledging that we have deep and abiding chasms between us that need unconditional loving-kindness, empathy, forgiveness, and curiosity. 

If all else fails, ask for a personal story. Actually- forget this whole article and START HERE. Start a storytelling circle around the table: One moment that changed your life or world-view: go! See where that takes you.

~with deepsweet gratitude


header photo cred