Editor’s note: The Observer’s editorial board wishes you a Happy Thanksgiving the best way we know – with advice. It comes from Durham’s Betsy Crites, who is here to help you navigate through the minefield of talking politics at the holiday table:
Post-election opinionators have spread the rumor that we are a country divided. OK, maybe it’s more than a rumor. For the sake of argument let’s proceed with the idea that some “healing” is needed to, well, avoid civil war.
The first question commentators then ask is “Can a President Trump heal the divisions?” I don’t know, but I get the impression that’s not his first priority.
New presidents seem to get pinned with this responsibility until journalists come to their senses. George W. Bush called himself the “uniter.” President Obama sought to “bridge the divides.” Sadly, the divisions seem worse now than ever.
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Maybe our newly elected Congress will begin working together for the good of the country. Just kidding.
No, if these great fissures somewhere in the American psyche are going to heal, it’s up to us, sitting around our proverbial kitchen tables. If you’re shrugging at this moment, go back and read how our founding fathers failed to resolve some of their little differences like slavery and states’ rights. Letting these squabbles fester can lead to nasty business.
So, this is for Hillarians and Trumpites, blues and reds. We gotta talk ... to each other. This brings me to Thanksgiving, that obligatory family reunion where many of us feel cloistered for hours with people who share some DNA, but little else.
Advice columnists caution us to “avoid talking politics” at such times. I disagree.
Nowadays, “politics” can refer to any even slightly controversial topic that’s in the public sphere. If we don’t try to understand varied viewpoints, we are ignoring much of what is on our collective minds and we’re seeing only bits and pieces of the picture.
We can learn to manage conversations with people of different opinions, and there’s no place like home to start our mission to heal America.
Of course, you don’t want your family gathering to break into sulking clusters in front of a football game. At the same time, you don’t want to miss an opportunity to learn about what’s important to your loved ones as regards issues that may affect everyone.
Whether you start the conversation or get broadsided, try some of these techniques for turning a conversation about politics into a bonding experience.
▪ Be curious, not righteous. Don’t assume you are right. This may be hard, but repeat after me, “I don’t know.”
▪ Resolve to listen without interrupting. If you fail, as most of us do, try again and again. Let the other person have the last word. I didn’t say this would be easy.
▪ Listen for something you can agree with. Try: “I can see why you would say that,” or even “I agree with you on...” You can do this!
▪ Throw out a sincere compliment or tender memory like “Well Dad, I know you are one of the most conscientious gun owners around. I remember how you...”
Share your opinion, but monitor your tone. Don’t condescend – a big no-no.
▪ Don’t try to win points or convince anyone. This is not a debate. It’s not a blame game. The purpose is to learn what’s important to the other person, e.g., “Are you concerned that we are not safe in our homes these days?” We’re conditioned to see things as right/wrong and win/lose, so this will take practice.
▪ Ix-nay the loaded words like “idiot,” “racist,” “nasty,” “corrupt,” or worse. Once you’ve used one, the conversation will probably go south.
▪ Don’t try this on alcohol or even caffeine. If either of you is boozed up or hyped, the first provocation will turn you into a bundle of jerking knees and smoking ears. If it comes to this, change the subject as quickly as possible.
▪ Have a segue ready. If you’re sober and follow the rules, but it still heats up, shift the topic to something else of interest to this person. E.g. “Well, this is important, Dad, but hey, I also wanted to hear about your latest….”
▪ End on a positive note. “Thanks for talking about this, Dad. It means a lot to hear your perspective.”
A successful conversation is one that airs a few ideas and ends with mutual goodwill intact, maybe an improved relationship, and something new you’ve learned. If you manage to pull off a successful conversation you’ll be on a natural high.
If you mount your soapbox, roll your eyes, or otherwise succumb to reactivity, don’t get discouraged. Notice the moments you were skillful, smile inwardly, and move on.
If you’re looking for healing for yourself and the country, talking politics in this way can be even more rewarding than watching football.
Betsy Crites is former director of NC Peace Action and writes on politics and peace.