Better Angels Skills for Thanksgiving Conversations

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How to Stop a Thanksgiving Dinner Debacle

Group conversations are like water: they run downhill—at the speed of the most argumentative or agitated family member. Here are ways to head them off.

1. Propose a no-politics ground rule up front

  • “I’d like to propose that we not talk politics during our Thanksgiving dinner. Is that okay with everyone?”

2. Intervene right away when someone starts a political conversation that you know will go badly.

  • “I suggest we not talk politics during our Thanksgiving meal.”
  • “Can we leave politics for later and just enjoy the meal?”
  • Speak in a calm, non-blaming tone. You are doing this for the common good, not to come down on any individuals.

3. Interrupt and redirect if things are already going badly

  • “Let’s finish this conversation later. Can we back up and just enjoy our dinner right now, without talking more about politics? ….How is Uncle Bob doing after his surgery?”
  • “Who else agrees with me that we should change the subject and stop arguing about politics during our Thanksgiving dinner? [If you get a lot of nods and agreement] “So let’s talk about something boring like the weather or sports!”
  • Speak firmly and without making it personal about the people who are arguing.

This only works if you have resisted the temptation to talk politics yourself at the table. Otherwise, you’ll be seen as cutting off the other side.

If you have been involved in the political argument, express regret that you got into it at Thanksgiving dinner and ask if others are willing to finish it later and just enjoy the meal.

One of the other “combatants” may need to make face-saving statement (“I wasn’t arguing, just expressing my point of view!”—which you should not respond to but rather repeat your hope to end the political discussion for now.

One to One Political Conversations with Relatives at Thanksgiving

If you want to discuss politics with family members, do it in one to one conversations, preferably outside of hearing range of others who might jump in and drag you down.

Four Do’s

  1. Try to understand the other’s viewpoint before responding with yours (“I think you’re saying that…. Am I getting that right?” “What else do you think about it?”)
  2. Use I statements (“this is how I see it”) rather than truth statements (this is how it is!”). Share your perspective rather than making pronouncements.
  3. Find something in common if at all possible (“I agree with you that….” “We both want to fix this problem.” Leading with what you agree on softens the other person.
  4. Acknowledge and then respond. Go back and forth between acknowledging what the other person has said (“I get it that you think ….”) and making your points (“My own view is that….”). This avoids parallel speech making and encourages the other person to not just keep repeating a point that you already taken in.

Four Don’ts

  1. Raise your voice and getting agitated. It takes two to escalate.
  2. Ask gotcha questions (“Do you actually believe that…?”) These are attacks rather than real questions.
  3. Assign negative motives to the other side (“Republicans just want to help businesses pollute the environment for profit” or “Democrats want open borders for criminals and terrorists.”) This leads to defensiveness and counterattack because no one is a villain in their own story.
  4. Throw out labels like “racist” or “socialist” or “libtard”. This shuts down or inflames the other person. You can usually make your point without the label.

Better Angels General Rule:

Respect the worth and dignity of the person you’re talking with even if you are dumbfounded or appalled by the views they express.

Better Angels Family Rule:

Don’t let any politician or party harm your relationships with your loved ones.

More to explore

4 thoughts on “Better Angels Skills for Thanksgiving Conversations”

  1. What a very helpful approach to counter the inevitable differences in political viewpoints as we celebrate Thanksgiving! Thank you, Braver Angels!

  2. Thank you so much for this! I’ve been worried about how the holidays will play out–our family being split right down the middle re: liberal-conservative. I think these ideas will really help and your Braver Angels Family Rule is exactly my feeling. Thanks again!

  3. These suggestions are also useful for discussing other sensitive topics such as decisions about the care and support of elderly relatives, whether or not climate collapse is happening and what can we each are doing about it, decisions about college or employment, etc. More detailed miniworkshops about compassionate communication or NVC can be found by searching for Marshall Rosenberg videos and listening with other friends and relatives.

  4. Hali Cespedes-Chorin

    Thank you for sharing this! I am thankful that I don’t have to spend Thanksgiving with anyone whose views I consider to be unreasonable 😉 (Except for my dog who insists that a visit from the mail carrier is catastrophic.)

    @Emma – I love your response! I have used NVC/compassionate communication in my immediate family. It does consume a lot of time and energy, though. Are there quick takeaways we can use when dealing with everyday interactions? (political or otherwise)

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