Don't let the "reptile" part of your brain overrule the others. Courtesy of Lchunhori.
Don't let the "reptile" part of your brain overrule the others. Courtesy of Lchunhori.

This essay is part of an op-ed project, Cardinal Way: Civility Rules. The project is to encourage constructive dialogue on difficult issues. You can participate in the project by telling us your thoughts on difficult conversations.

Dreading the annual family gatherings this year? Sure, you love the people and want to see them, well for the most part. But then you remember last year, when Uncle Joe went off on one of his crazy rants about politics. Everyone got upset, people said hurtful things, and no one left happy. The American political divide has come home for the holidays. 

Conflict entrepreneurs — politicians who set citizens against each other, aided and abetted by media seeking to sell drama — are modeling bad behavior. Conflict entrepreneurs get money and power by dividing citizens against each other. Just last week, a U.S. senator and a labor union president threatened each other with a fist fight during a Senate hearing! Don’t let them teach you how to behave, especially with your family during the holidays. 

Let’s see if we can give you some self-protection tools to navigate politics at Thanksgiving.

First, identify what your goals are for this gathering. Who do you want to spend time with? What family traditions do you want to enjoy? Having goals, and keeping laser-focused on them during the event, can help protect you from the temptation to put Uncle Joe in his place, and all of the emotional distress that goes with getting sucked into someone else’s political agenda. 

Second, accept that you cannot win over Uncle Joe with data and brilliant arguments. You will never, never, never convince him of just how stupid his perspective is. And even if you were to succeed, he would walk away feeling shamed, humiliated in front of everyone. Your short-term victory will soon sour your stomach. Family members will be upset with your for making Uncle Joe feel bad. It won’t matter that you were “right.”

Third, the problem is not Uncle Joe. The problem is you! That’s good news because it is a problem you can solve. You can control you. You will never, ever control Uncle Joe. See #2 above. 

But how do you solve the “you” problem? How do you keep from responding to Uncle Joe when the temptation is so enormous? The simple answer is don’t let yourself get triggered. But that’s easier said than done. Emotions often run high at family gatherings because of unrealistic expectations and maybe a few too many glasses of wine. And Uncle Joe may know just how to bait people into stupid arguments. 

It helps to know how our brain works. There is a part of the brain, often called the reptile brain, that is constantly scanning for threats. That’s a good thing. Recognizing threats keeps us alive. Unfortunately, the reptile brain is not good at telling the difference between real threats that can hurt us and fake threats. A bear chasing you in the woods is a real threat. Uncle Joe’s crazy rant is not. It will be meaningless tomorrow. 

But in the moment, your reptile brain, thinking it is warning you of real danger, will flood you with emotion — fear, anger, or both. It will make up all sorts of reasons why you have to respond. Those powerful emotions will tempt you to straighten out Uncle Joe once and for all. (You will fail.)

Fortunately, there is another part of the brain that is really smart. It is able to combine truly sound logic with productive emotions. That’s a hard combination to beat. But this part of our brain needs a little more time than our reptile brain to do its job. Your job is to figure out how to give yourself that time. Your reptile brain will want you to respond right now! You don’t have to. Wait long enough to let your smart brain kick in.

How? The old “take a breath” is not bad advice. Remind yourself of your goals for this holiday event. Ask someone to pass the potatoes. Even better, remember something that Uncle Joe once did for you, or some event you enjoyed together. Anything to buy yourself, and your smart brain, a little time to turn down the heat. Being in control of yourself feels really good.

Enough of how not to respond to Uncle Joe. How can you respond that will leave you feeling good and contribute to the success of the gathering? Lead with kindness. Mr. Rogers used to tell the children who watched his program, “Let’s take a minute to think about all of the people who have loved us.” Some of those people will be at your gathering. Keeping such love in mind will help you respond kindly. Here are some ideas:

Consider what Joe is trying to accomplish by his rant. He may just be trying to sound smart or feel the need for attention. Is there something you can say that would help him feel smart on some other topic? Or maybe you could redirect the conversation to shared memories: “Hey Joe. Remember when we went to that ball game?” Or “Remember when you took me fishing and I nearly fell out of the boat?” You are not only being kind to Joe, you are being kind to everyone else.

But let’s say that Joe is not to be dissuaded from the divisive topic. How can you be kind without abandoning your own principles and beliefs?

Genuine curiosity can be a wonderful tool. “Joe, I probably see things differently than you do. But I’d love to learn more about your perspective. What makes your position on (whatever the topic is) important to you?” In most cases, you will find that his position, with which you violently disagree, is based on something he values that probably isn’t insane. Perhaps underlying what you consider to be his wrong-headed position is an interest in fairness or an interest in respect for authority. These are both understandable values, even if we might think one is more important than the other. They both matter. 

Finding a common value can lead to peaceable conclusion that goes something like: “Well, we certainly agree that we want people to be treated fairly. We simply disagree on how best to make that happen.”

Dana Ackley, Ph.D. is a founding member of the Roanoke Collaboration Project. He is the President of...