Thanksgiving has always carried with it opportunities for differences of opinion, rehashing of the past, and, of course, moments of awkwardness. But this year feels especially precarious! I have been having a lot of conversations with folks who are carrying major trepidation about gathering with their family in the wake of the 2016 presidential election.
Some people I have spoken with have found it helpful to make a plan ahead of time. Consider sending an email or starting a group text that invites your family into a meta-conversation. In other words, talk about talking. Work together to make agreements about how you will handle differences when you are together for the holiday.
The big question is this: Can your family can engage in heartfelt and curious dialog? Or, as emotions rise, do you guys predictably slip into fight or flight? (Fight: taking a win/lose approach, talking over each other, trying to prove who is right and who is wrong. Flight: retreating into stony silence.) If your family is at risk of charging headlong into fight nor flight, agree to place a moratorium on election talk for now. Rather than being a strategy of avoidance, a temporary moratorium can be a way of truly honoring the need to feel connected and close during and upsetting and uncertain time.
If your family decides that chopping celery next to someone who voted for “the other guy” is totally do-able, here are 10 strategies to keep in mind:
1. Connect with Your Shared Highest Values. Start by asking the question, “What can we do to protect this family from the risk of election-induced conflict this Thanksgiving?” This question puts family members on the same team from the outset, inviting everyone to work together on ways to maximize love/enjoyment/affection and minimize conflict/misunderstanding/pain.
2. Speak for Yourself. If your family agrees to engage in election-related dialog, every family member ought to commit to speaking only for himself or herself. What the election stirs in individuals, couples, families, communities, and our nation as a whole is infinitely complex. So complex that all aspects cannot be spoken all at the same time. Therefore, the words we choose to speak need to be grounded in our unique perspective/story/truth in order to maximize bridge-building between people. If I open by saying, “What I have been struggling with most is X,” I am inviting your curiosity (rather than your defensiveness). If you can stay open and curious with me as I share, I am more likely to open up with you more about what, from my unique life story and perspective, leads me to feel this way. And then I can do the same for you.
3. Avoid a Thin Story. Nuance is the enemy of extremism. Stay close in and nuanced with each other. This is how, inch by inch, we build bridges of understanding. Our perspective is shaped by a huge range of factors including sociodemographic variables like race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, ability, and socioeconomic status. The impact of culture (as it affects privilege and marginalization) is an emotionally potent aspect of post-election reactivity. Cultural differences will exist around every Thanksgiving table, even if everyone practices the same religion or shares the same skin color. Therefore, when dialog turns to the impact of privilege or marginalization based on cultural location, staying close in is more important than ever.
4. Listen for Understanding Instead of Responding. A lot of times when someone is talking, we are figuring out what we want to say next. Try active listening instead. Listen in order to really understand what that person is saying. Think about how differently the conversation would go if you each are working hard to understand the other.
5. Seek the Feeling behind the Feeling. There’s almost always a whole lotta stuff hiding out behind someone’s anger and judgement—fear, sadness, grief, shame. Strive to understand the nuances of each other’s perspectives and how that perspective is grounded in the unique life journey of that individual. That’s usually the path to the tender stuff that hides behind the bluster. Empathy grows when you commitment to curious understanding of someone who feels differently than you. We know (in our bones and in our scholarly research) that empathy has the power to heal individuals, families, and nations. Therefore, seek deep and detailed understanding of the other guy’s perspective. Even when it’s hard. Especially when it’s hard.
6. Be Mindful. Listen to your body. Take a break if and when you feel “triggered” (too angry or sad or afraid to stay engaged with an open and curious heart). During the break, use some self-soothing strategies like deep breathing, walking outside, taking a hot shower, or listening to music.
7. Limit Alcohol Consumption. Even if we think that alcohol will help us feel more mellow and festive, alcohol is a depressant. Alcohol increases the chances that tempers will flare.
8. Remember the Long Game. The wounds are fresh right now. We are swimming in uncertainty. There’s so much that we don’t know right now. Therapists often say, “Name it to tame it.” Naming that fact—we are dealing with so much uncertainty—invites compassion… with ourselves and with each other.
9. Be the Change You Want to See in the World (and in Your Family). There are pretty much two energies in this world when you boil it all down. The energy of love and the energy of fear. It is really easy right now to slip into the energy of fear which is abundant. Take the risk to show up at Thanksgiving as LOVE. Embody LOVE. Be LOVE. Even when it’s hard.
10. Practice Gratitude. When we are afraid and hurting, it can feel like a betrayal to laugh or to play—like maybe we are sticking our heads in the sand or opting out of the very real work that needs to be done. What if you view Thanksgiving as a time to recharge your battery so that you can come back ready to do your part? Look again and again for moments of sweetness in your family. Moments of connection. Of empathy. Of collaboration. It’s OK to play, to giggle. Restoring yourself in the energy of your lineage and your ancestry is a powerful kind of activism. Our country needs love, connection, and empathy more than ever.
A few years ago an addictions specialist taught me this: “Say what you mean. Mean what you say. But don’t say it in a mean way.” This Thanksgiving, I hope you can speak your truth with love. And I hope you can listen with love. Most of all, do not underestimate the amazing power of heartfelt dialog between small gatherings of people who are committed to each other– past, present, and future.
Read more Loving Bravely on Psychology Today.