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Tips from a Seattleite on how to talk with ‘the other side’ this Thanksgiving

The election shook this city to its core. And whatever your politics, you might find yourself sharing the Thanksgiving dinner table with someone who sees things very differently from you. Maybe, you think, too differently.

At that point, you have a choice. You can avoid any mention of the election and just have a nice dinner. You can dive in and try your hardest to prove you’re right. Or you can find a way to really talk about all this. But how? And to what end?

If it feels like conversation can’t be on your menu right now (or maybe ever), that’s cool. But if you’d like to try to talk with someone you disagree with this Thanksgiving, or anytime, really, check out the tips below from Seattle’s Peggy Holman, and the resources we’ve gathered with her help. Peggy is a local author and community consultant who’s facilitated a lot of tough conversations over her career.

Including with her own parents…

Listen and speak your truth

Guest post by Peggy Holman:

From the time I left for college until my early thirties, I kept communication with my parents to the superficial. I never felt they understood me. Then I participated in a self-improvement workshop and committed to seeking a meaningful, loving relationship with my parents. I never told them what I was doing. I just asked a different kind of question the next time we talked — one that was intended to get them to talk about what mattered to them. We had an amazing conversation. From then on, our relationship changed.

Years later, shortly before she died, my mother and I talked about that conversation. I didn’t know until then that it stood out for her too. She said I sounded different that day. She thought I must be calling to tell her I was pregnant. I laughed when she told me that, knowing that had she said that at the time, I would have been offended – treating it as another example that she didn’t understand me.

So how do you talk with family or friends who see the world differently? The suggestions below come from years of working with organizations and communities to address complex, even conflicted issues.

Clarify your intentions. If you intend to convince people around the table to see things your way, consider only having Thanksgiving dinner with people you agree with. If you intend to understand them or to strengthen your connection with them, go for it. If your intention is along the lines of “I want them to understand me better,” chances are you don’t understand them. And since you only have control over your thoughts and actions, your challenge is to flip it: “I want to understand them better.” If you find that a tough idea to swallow, chances are you’re on the right path.

Ask appreciative questions. Social science tells us that we get more of what we focus on. So, if we focus on problems, we can actually make them worse. Great questions come from both compassion and curiosity, and questions that invite stories of people’s aspirations work well. For something election related, focus on where we go from here: “Now that we’re past the election, what are your hopes for our country?”

Listen…to understand. One good practice is to reflect what you heard the other person say and say it back to them. You both may come away with a clearer understanding of what matters to them. If you hear something you disagree with, rather than letting it trigger you, use it as an opportunity to learn more. A trick I’ve picked up is when I want to say “I disagree,” instead, I’ll say, “That’s an interesting perspective. Tell me more.”

That said, listening is hard when you feel strongly about your views and triggered by something someone said. That makes sense: It means you care. When it feels impossible not to interject and get angry, take a breath and ask yourself: What was triggered in you? Perhaps you find what’s being said insensitive to another’s suffering. Perhaps it comes out of some injustice that you experienced.

When you become more conscious of the source of a hot button, you are more equipped to choose your response. Rather than just reacting, you can name it in a way that you own what you’re feeling. Something like, “My heart hurts when I hear something that I believe causes suffering.” No blame, no accusations, just a statement of what’s true for you.

Remember: Stay caring and curious and use this as an opportunity to learn something new.

peggyPeggy Holman is the author of “Engaging Emergence: Turning Upheaval into Opportunity” and “The Change Handbook.”

You can reach her at [email protected] or on Twitter @peggyholman.

Learn more about her work at peggyholman.com.

Resources on how to have tough political talks

  • How to Talk Politics at the Holidays without Ruining Everything: This 7:45 minute KNKX interview with David Domke, a University of Washington professor who studies the way we talk to each other about politics, is worth hearing. We like his answer to this very good question: “How do I listen to people talk about their views without normalizing things like racism, sexism and religious hostility?”
  • Reaching Across the Red/Blue Divide: This recently released guide from a professional facilitation group includes a handy cheat sheet for conversation across political lines: 1) Repeat what you heard, 2) Name what’s most important to you, and 3) Ask an honest question about what matters to the person you’re talking to.
  • How to Talk about Politics at Work: A good tip in this post by business consultant Jesse Lyn Stoner is to speak for yourself, and not others, and to resist the temptation to assume you know what’s motivating people’s beliefs. Better to just ask.
  • How to Argue Fairly and Without Rancor (Hello, Thanksgiving!): A key quote from this New York Times piece: “[Trying to understand the other person’s point of view] does not mean you have to agree with him or her, or that you are abandoning deeply felt objections to, for example, racism or sexism.”
  • Showing Up for Racial Justice Thanksgiving Discussion Guide: If you’re white and looking to talk to other white people about racial justice, the group Showing Up For Racial Justice has a text-based “hotline” you can reach out to when you need support. On the same note, reader Sara Kiesler recommends this guide on “How to talk about your loved ones about a Trump presidency.” Others who have shared it say it’s been crowdsourced; the document itself names no author.

Find these resources useful? Forward this to anyone you know who’d also appreciate them, and if you try out any of these tips in real conversation, let us know how it went with an email to [email protected]