Meditation. Listen and ask questions. A “no politics” rule. Not attending. “I don’t know what I’ll do.” These are all answers St. Louisans gave when asked “how are you planning to handle political differences at the Thanksgiving dinner table this year?”
There’s no doubt that this year has been a doozy for civil discourse throughout the 2016 election. No matter who you voted for, you’ve probably said or heard something from a political candidate that you disagree with…vehemently. In that respect, Thanksgiving, a time when family and friends from across the political spectrum come together, this year almost feels “too soon.”
How should you handle conversations with people you disagree with or who don’t agree with the way you live your life or who you are? How should you talk across generations or with those who live in a different part of the country than you do? How can you get people to see your point of view?
These are all important questions. On Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Don Marsh sat down with two counselors who’ve been fielding such questions since the election and asked them how to handle these conversations over the holidays.
Marva Robinson is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist with Veterans Affairs in St. Louis and Preston & Associates Psychology Firm, LLC. She joined us for last year’s segment on a similar topic and offered some helpful advice. Joining Robinson was Licensed Therapist Patricia Bitter, who runs Tapestry Counseling. She’s been blogging about how to handle the holidays this year.
Here are five big themes that emerged from Bitter and Robinson’s conversation about Thanksgiving conversation:
1. Set your goal for the dinner ahead of time.
Ahead of the dinner, consider what your goal for time with your family is. Keep that goal in mind and choose words carefully if you do decide to bring up a political point. Robinson suggests considering as you speak that you are setting an example for the children in your family — so debate as though you are teaching a lesson in civility.
In some cases, if you think conversation will become too vitriolic to discuss politics, it may be best to avoid the subject all together. That doesn’t mean you’re totally backing down about your beliefs.
“When I think about avoiding conflict, we’re talking about the Thanksgiving dinner table, we’re talking about what is it that you want for that dinner,” Bitter said. “We’re not talking about avoiding conflict forever, just in that situation. One of the things I teach my couples: If I have an issue with my partner, I will approach them and say ‘is now a good time?’ If it is not a good time, then we schedule a good time to talk about it. It’s not avoiding across the board.”
Robinson agreed: “There will be other times to hash out the differences. This Thanksgiving, in 2016, will only happen one time. Opportunities to debate will be there forever.”
2. Reach out to family members you think might disagree or argue boisterously ahead of time.
If you know someone particularly disagrees with you or hasn’t acknowledged your point of view during holidays past, it might be worth it to contact that person ahead of the holiday.
Ask what is on the table for discussion at the dinner and what is not, Robinson said. If the subject is not on the table, set up a different time to talk about it if it is important to you.
“The opportunity to have that conversation can go on for days, months and years,” Robinson said. “But those three hours of dinnertime at Thanksgiving you only get one time a year.”
3. Impose “ground rules” for political conversation.
Setting expectations ahead of time can be greatly helpful, Bitter said. Say out loud at the dinner table that you want guests to be “respectful and mindful” of others’ views.
Such ground rules might mean designating a certain family member as someone to step in when people violate the rules or seem to be going off the rails and talk to them outside of the dinner table. Robinson suggested that this designated family member might hold a bell to ring when conversation gets out of hand, a code word like “time for dessert” or even water guns (as one listener suggested) for family members to squirt to help facilitate the process.
Some families have a no-alcohol rule at Thanksgiving, to help stop the loosening of tongues and inhibitions around the dinner table. For some families, it may work to set a different time and place for a political conversation meet-up, such as a bar.
4. It’s okay to take time for self-preservation.
“You can always choose not to be around the person,” Bitter said. “Some people might call it avoidance. Others might call it self-preservation. It is okay not to put yourself in the line of fire of someone who might be hurtful.”
Bitter also suggested taking the instructions flight attendants give you on the plane to heart:
“You put on your own oxygen mask first before putting your child’s mask on,” Bitter said. “Breathe. The same thing applies here: breathe, keep breathing. Take time to calm yourself down before you engage with something that might be hurtful to you.”
5. Get out of the house.
One caller during the segment suggested that families get outside of the house on Thanksgiving.
“Start a turkey trot this year or volunteer at a soup kitchen,” she said. “Take your family to a place, go ice skating. That is something that is needed in our world. The government can’t do everything. People can’t do everything. Each of us need to give back a bit and that will ease our anxieties.”
Bitter and Robinson agreed wholeheartedly.
St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.