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.
Have you ever avoided a family gathering because you know who will be there, and you know how he or she can be? That scenario happens all the time and becomes especially difficult during the holidays. But how did we get here? And how can we still make it to Thanksgiving dinner?
“Never discuss politics or religion in polite company.”
How often have you heard this in your life? Just recently at a dining event designed to help college students learn etiquette for meals with potential employers, we were all admonished to avoid the topics of politics and religion at our tables during the meal.
We follow this rule so often that we have no idea how to have polite discussions of these topics. Now we only know how to discuss these things angrily because that is the only way we ever see it happen. We can’t model our dinnertime conversations after cable news programming. Unfortunately, it seems the only way we ever see politics discussed is impolitely, and because of this we are doing ourselves no favors as a society.
So how do we have polite conversations about politics during such polarizing times? In the United States, we will soon gather around tables with friends and family who might have vastly different opinions than our own. Can we talk about politics around our Thanksgiving table? With practice, better listening, and expectation management, I think we can.
I spent my early career having difficult and uncomfortable conversations regularly. I was a restorative practices victim-offender mediator. I mediated conversations between offenders and their victims to help them create an agreement laying out how the offender could make right the wrong they created when they hurt the victim. Mediation gives the victim the chance to tell the ways they have been hurt and to get justice on their own terms. It also gives the offender the opportunity to seek forgiveness. Without spending too much time extolling the many virtues of this practice, I will end by saying that this process is a masterclass in how to have a difficult and uncomfortable conversation.
Here are a few things I’ve learned in this career that may help you talk to your family with different opinions over Thanksgiving turkey.
Set your expectations for these dinnertime conversations. These are not debates; they are conversations. They are an exchange of ideas. You are not going to change someone’s mind in one dinnertime conversation, so don’t try. As some of my favorite podcasters from the Pantsuit Politics podcast regularly say, your goal is not to draft policy after one discussion. Your only goal is to understand someone else’s opinion. That’s it.
Doesn’t that take the pressure off? And what this reframe of expectation also means is that no one should try to change your mind either. You are both only sharing your beliefs and opinions and listening with the intent to understand – not with the intent to change.
Listening to understand
People are such terrible listeners. One reason for that is because we listen to reply, and we don’t listen to understand as Steven Covey recommends. This is a key part of my mediations. Don’t prepare your response while the other person is talking. Listen. Try to hear their viewpoint. You can talk when it is your turn.
Once you begin to listen to understand, the next step is to assume good intent from the other person and practice respectful engagement. Model the respect you want to receive from the other person by giving it to them. Don’t go in assuming they are going to fight dirty. That assumption just primes you to fight dirty, or rudely, as well. It may feel hard to respect a different opinion, but I’m not asking you to respect the opinion. Just the person.
Sometimes it is difficult to have a discussion with someone whose plan for your conversation is to win it like you would an argument or debate. If they go on the attack like that, don’t follow them. Keep modeling the respect you want to receive. And if they don’t stop? You are under no obligation to continue that conversation. Agree to disagree and move on.
Ask clarifying questions
One hurdle to overcome in conversations with someone from a different political party can be the vast difference between their reality or basic assumptions about the topic and yours. If you find yourself speaking with someone who makes a statement that is over the top or outside your understanding of reality, take this time to practice your listening skills. Ask some clarifying questions such as “Tell me more about that.” or “Help me understand….” Don’t personally attack them for believing something different from you. Try to keep them talking to learn more clearly what they are thinking.
A cure for society’s ills?
In the end, even with tips and tricks, it is still difficult and uncomfortable to disagree with someone over a polite dinner. But with practice, we can improve and hopefully find a better way to communicate during these challenging times. Will learning how to have polite conversations about taboo topics fix our political divide? (Before this next presidential election? Fingers crossed?) No, I’m afraid not. But as more people are willing to have conversations with people of differing worldviews, I believe we can learn to coexist more peacefully and bring a little civility back to our individual corners of the world. And hopefully civility will spread.