How To Keep The Peace This Thanksgiving: A Simple Strategy For Awkward Conversations

It’s an American tradition — turkey, family, and awkward conversations. 

2020 has been a bizarre year, so there will be no shortage of conversation this Thanksgiving. 

I’m an adjunct professor at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law and at Otterbein University, and one of the topics my students were most interested in this year was how to have difficult conversations with their families about sensitive issues.

I’ve spent a lot of time recently thinking about the best approach for people in these awkward conversations, and I came to a telling conclusion: for most people, all they really want is to survive with the relationship intact. However, they often approach the conversation as though all they really want to do is win at all costs.

If all you want to do is survive, there is a very simple strategy: listen, understand, exit.

Listen. 

People have a deep psychological need to be heard. It’s one of the few things that we cannot do for ourselves. We need a willing participant to listen so that we can feel heard and validated.

When we are talking about sensitive issues like politics, public health, or racial justice, people are passionate about their beliefs. It‘s not just about what’s right and wrong, but it’s also about who we see ourselves to be. 

It’s easy for people to get heated about these issues because these beliefs are so intrinsic to who we are that opposing views can feel like an existential threat. This is why people feel compelled to have these conversations and why they always involve high levels of emotion. 

They want to be heard. Hear them. 

Understand. 

Listening is nothing without understanding. Empathy can be difficult when we don’t agree with someone, but we have to remember this — empathy isn’t a concession, it’s a necessary part of persuasion. 

All we’re trying to do is understand how they see, think, and feel about the situation. That’s it. People will feel some level of satisfaction if they believe that you understand where they’re coming from, even if you don’t agree.

We often have such a negative mentality about these difficult conversations that we don’t even recognize the opportunity. I believe that the best things in life are on the other side of difficult conversations. With this mentality, it’s easy to see this simple truth: conflict is an opportunity. In these conversations, we are taking this opportunity to deepen our level of mutual understanding. 

If we approach this conversation from this mindset, we can have a stronger, deeper relationship, even though we ultimately don’t agree on these issues.

One of the things people often say to me is “sometimes their views are so different from mine that I couldn’t possibly understand.” In another article, How to Bring Civility to Political Arguments, I walk through how you can get a deeper understanding of people by learning what’s called Moral Foundations Theory. Using a branch of political psychology, it outlines the six foundations of morality that serve as the core values behind political, social, and religious ideologies.

Exit. 

You need to know when to stop. These conversations often go much longer than they need to because people try to switch from Level 1 Communication — communicating for understanding — to Level 2 Communication — persuasion and argumentation. 

One of the biggest mistakes people make in these conversations is that they try to persuade too soon. If you really want to change someone’s perspective on these sensitive issues, it’s going to take a lot of time. Their beliefs have been crystallized through years of life experience, and it’s unlikely that you’ll change their perspective in one conversation. You have to be patient.

But what if they hold beliefs that I find to be morally repugnant, and that I could not possibly respect?

You need to be true to yourself and be very clear on your values. If you feel as though empathizing with someone on one of these issues compromises your values, then you shouldn’t do it. You need to be able to respect yourself after the process. 

If you find yourself in this kind of situation with family around the holidays, the best strategy may be to simply not have the conversation or to have the conversation at a time where you can spare people who don’t want to be involved. I told my students that most likely, the dinner table isn’t the place where you want to have these conversations because often, there are others around who would either prefer not to be included or hear it. 

To avoid conversations springing up at inopportune times, making it more difficult to be cordial, I’d suggest you pre-determine how, when, or even if the conversation should happen. Set ground rules so that people can operate with some level of clarity. With these tactics in place, conversations are much more likely to end successfully.

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