We all know the scenario hilariously played out on last Saturday’s SNL skit: you’re sitting around the thanksgiving dinner table when Aunt Cathy inevitably starts spouting off her doggedly absurd political views (insert eye roll) and it takes all you can muster not to reach across the table and strangle her. Well take heart: it need not come to this. Here are some tips to help you handle the annual holiday dinner without it swiftly turning into Battle Royale.
1. Make a Plan
This isn’t your first rodeo. You know the deal: after a few glasses of wine Aunt Cathy won’t stop with her political rantings, which just so happen to entirely contradict your rational and wisely chosen political ideals. You feel your heart start beating fast and your face grow hot. What is she saying?! Take a deep breath and remember your plan.
Many of us run the worst-case scenarios in our mind and brace ourselves for a nasty encounter. This can do more harm more than good as it raises anxiety. Try to reframe the scenario in your mind. Say, “This might be stressful, but I can handle it. I’ve been through worse!”
Use “If-Then” statements. You know what to expect, so plan your response. “If Uncle Larry starts talking about the refugee issue I am going to calmly tell him ‘I understand you’re coming from but I have respectfully have an alternate viewpoint.’” Another example: “If Uncle Larry won’t let it go, I will excuse myself to the bathroom.”
2. Use Active Listening
We all want to be heard. These issues are important to us, and rightfully so. When a family member makes a statement that disagrees with the core of your beliefs, it’s only natural to have a strong desire to assert your opposing view. And you can.
But first, wait. Take a deep breath. And remember this:
When people truly feel heard, they are in a much better place to listen to what you have to say.
In other words, if you want Aunt Cathy to gain a shred of understanding toward your opposing viewpoint, you first must listen to her and make her feel heard. The next important thing to remember:
You can listen to and understand an opinion without subscribing to it.
It’s true. You can. And you should! The foundation for healthy communication is active listening. You won’t have time to teach a psychology class during Thanksgiving dinner but you can guide the table toward healthy communication by example.
Next, muster up your best empathy skills. In this situation it's going to be hard but you can do it! Of course, empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and imagine what things are like from their perspective. You’ve got to really divorce yourself from your own personal views for a moment (not forever, just for a few minutes!) and see things through Aunt Cathy's eyes.
Convey this by summarizing what she’s just said, and authentically tell her how it is you understand what she’s saying. For example, you might say something like, “I can see how you feel that refugees shouldn’t be let into our country. It can be really scary to think that they might put our lives in direct danger. It sounds like you’re saying protection is really important to you. I can understand and appreciate that. I want to feel safe, too.”
Ask her to explain anything you might not completely understand. (Remember, you don’t have to believe it to understand it!) This also shows the speaker that you care about what they have to say and want to know more. You could say, “Tell me more about your thoughts on __________ and why you think _____________.” You don’t have to go on forever. A little of this will go a long way in making stubborn Aunt Cathy feel heard and ultimately hear YOUR point of view.
3. Change the Subject
You have a 0.01% chance of changing Aunt Cathy’s vote over turkey dinner by arguing with her. Studies have shown that it is rare for a person to change their political opinion through argument. So is it worth it?
Depending on your relationship and energy level, sometimes it’s just not. In which case, change the subject. This doesn’t mean you have to agree. Be authentic. Say, “I hear what you’re saying, Aunt Cathy; I respectfully have a different view. To tell you the truth I’ve had so many of these difficult political conversations lately I just don’t have energy for another one right now if you don’t mind. I would really like to hear about your new job though. How is that going?” Chances are, she'll really want to talk about it.
4. Be Kind
This goes without saying, but don’t belittle anyone for not agreeing with your views. Ultimately it does nothing more than solidify their view, hurt your relationship, and make you look bad. A little kindness can go a long way to help make the holidays positive. Remember, you don’t have to go home with this person, you just have to eat turkey with them for an hour. Be kind, and see number 5…
5. Give Thanks
It’s Thanksgiving, after all. When we are mindful of all we have to be thankful for, getting into arguments is less likely. So when you’re taking the trip to gather around the table with your loved ones this Thanksgiving, remember to be thankful, be kind, come prepared with a plan, use your active listening skills, and if necessary, deflect the conversation.
…And if none of these suggestions end up working, you can always just break out the Adele!
Chantal D. Hayes, M.A., LPC, NCC
Chantal D. Hayes