Our limited exposure to each other this Thanksgiving makes it easier to practice the skills that can repair the fractures between us.
With the rifts exposed by this year’s divisive presidential election still raw, families are cobbling together shrunken Thanksgiving celebrations as COVID-19 rates rise. Nerves are shot. Emotions are running hot on all sides.
But the holidays are one of the remaining windows into perspectives different from our own, and it’s a window we can’t afford to lose.
According to a Pew research study, most of us have few or no friends from the opposing side. That’s a dangerous trend because our attitudes become more extreme after speaking with those who share our views, without us realizing it, the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology reports.
We’re reimaging our gatherings this holiday season. Let’s reimagine our conversations, too.
Fortunately, our limited exposure to each other this Thanksgiving — brief backyard visits or Zoom calls — makes it easier for us to practice the skills that can repair the fractures between us.
I spent Thanksgiving 2016 much like I spent the rest of that year, blundering my way through uncomfortable conversations. Trump just got elected, and I was horrified to find myself becoming increasingly judgmental toward those who voted for him. I could either spend the next four years becoming bitter and angry with people I loved, or I could try to find out why.
I made countless mistakes in conversations with right-leaning friends. I’d begin with genuine curiosity. Inevitably, I’d get triggered and pounce on them. Friends responded to my well-reasoned arguments by changing the subject, not changing their hearts.
As a mediator, the founder of a storytelling platform created to increase empathy, even as a middle child, seeking peace is bred into me. But it wasn’t until the Trump administration that I realized while I was preaching peace, I sure wasn’t living peace.
So I’ve spent the past four years trying to become less of a hypocrite. I’ve interviewed neuroscientists, conflict researchers and dialogue experts to learn how to have better conversations that hold our shared humanity as firmly as our differences.
Learning to have good conversations
I learned that having a meaningful conversation starts on the inside. It means summoning the generosity to assume good intent, and the humility to honor life experiences that shaped opinions different from mine.
The purpose of these kinds of conversations is not to change minds, but to understand perspectives. Liberated from convincing and fixing, we can build our endurance to sit with the complexity of the enormous challenges we face.
Good questions are at the heart of great conversations. Open, searching, generous questions draw out life stories, hopes and fears. “I am wondering…” and “tell me about a time when you…” plant us in fertile soil.
Nothing shuts down a conversation faster than trying to be right and proving a point, like those “gotcha” questions that dominate the media landscape. Living Room Conversation’s Good Questions for Great Gatherings — curated questions grouped by theme and distilled from more than 100 topics — is a helpful short cut.
Shame won’t change minds
Holding space as someone works through their reasons for what I believe is a truly unjust opinion was one of the most challenging skills to cultivate. It helped to remember what peace and conflict researcher Emile Bruneau said, that lasting change comes through trusting relationships.
In his studies of former white supremacists, Bruneau found that it was never snark, shame or shutting down a conversation that changed minds. It was a kind gesture and repeated, unexpected, undeserved gentleness that eventually reached them.
When triggers invariably arise, repeating a mantra like “listening doesn’t imply consent” can be helpful. Expressing curiosity about a different perspective doesn’t endorse that belief.
Our words matter. Certain ones will elicit a knee-jerk reaction counter to the goal of deepening understanding and connection — words like racist, misogynist, socialist, white supremacy and privilege. Don’t avoid the topic, just avoid words that shut down any hope of meaningfully addressing the topic.
Throughout the pandemic, we’ve demonstrated that we’re far more resilient and adaptable than we realized. This stripped down holiday season, instead of preparing to host dozens for dinner, we can prepare ourselves for meaningful conversations, where our passion for issues doesn’t eclipse our passion for each other.