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Dreading the Thanksgiving Table

Originally published by Braver Angels (then Better Angels) on November 3, 2018.

For the past two years, Thanksgiving has been one of the most painful times of year for many Americans. Even if we haven’t lived this story ourselves, just about every one of us has heard from a frustrated friend about their dread over returning home to share a turkey dinner with relatives.

As the partisan divide has increasingly engulfed the country, our inability to talk to one another on a productive level has extended to our family connections. After all, while those bonds can be quite strong, we generally don’t choose our relatives, so in a family context we don’t have the option of surrounding ourselves purely with people who share our political wavelength.

I’ve heard from multiple people about their misgivings about these family gatherings. Erin Roberts, a progressive who lives in Orange County, CA, comes from a “family of extremes” in Boise, ID. Most of the family is very conservative, but there are some fierce liberals in the family, and it can lead to very tense moments.

At one holiday dinner, she recalls, a discussion of climate change got so heated that her aunt ended up slamming her fists on the table in a fit of pique. Since that day the family has tended to separate into two rooms for dinner, one that’s willing to broach politics, and one that seeks to avoid the topic altogether.

Delores Curtner, also in Orange County, just got a call from her son about Thanksgiving dinner this year.

“I said I really don’t want to hear it, because last year it was a disaster,” she recounted. Delores sees herself as fairly middle-of-the-road in her beliefs, but says that she and her son, who is more progressive, get into plenty of conflicts, especially over the “old verbiage” she uses to talk about race.

“Obviously the country is divided right now,” says her son, Mitt Feely, who lives in Malibu, “and me going back to Orange County is a disaster.” He added that in the past he and others have been so offended by certain comments that they’ve left the table.

While Mike Romano hasn’t necessarily been witness to Thanksgiving table blow-ups, his family relationships haven’t come through the current era unscathed. He lives in Chesapeake, VA, and his relationship with his brother, who lives in New Hampshire with his girlfriend, “isn’t what it used to be.”

While Mike doesn’t consider himself a supporter of President Trump, he says his brother has interpreted his opposition toward Hillary Clinton in a way that has put distance between them.

“I’m still the same person I was” before Trump was elected, Mike says, so he feels that the current political environment has created a new level of stress on these family relationships.

Thanksgiving table issues have become so pervasive they’re now etched in the pop culture canon, with at least one movie, “The Oath”—released last week—being set during one of these dinners. While Ike Barinholtz, who wrote and directed it, in addition to playing the liberal protagonist role, certainly has a very “blue” take on the issue, the point he says he’s making in the film is more directed at this breakdown of bonds.

He told the Hollywood Reporter, “The overriding message is that we have an obligation as not just Americans but as husbands, daughters, sisters and wives to do our best and try and not let these external forces permanently disable our relationships. I feel like the worst thing that can happen in this country is that people just say, ‘I got in a fight with my brother last year, I’m not going to Thanksgiving this year, I de-friended him on Facebook, I don’t want to deal with that.’”

With this fundamental disconnect in mind, Better Angels is making November a month to work on healing these connections, particularly in the wake of a mid-term election season that has already been so hurtful to so many relationships. Rather than immediately barreling down a path of confrontation that can last from greetings to goodbyes, Thanksgiving can be an opportunity for us to reconnect on a human level, face to face. It sets aside the mask that social media provides, even when interacting with our kin, which can often lead to strained bonds of affection even before we ring the doorbell.

Fortunately we have developed a workshop that addresses these issues directly, allowing Better Angels members to learn and practice the exact types of skills that can make the holiday season so much easier and more fulfilling. The Skills Workshop focuses on building skills to enable respectful conversations that let us see our differences more clearly, but at the same time bring into focus what we share and how much we value our relationships.

There are four major “domains” of skills that the workshop explores, starting with purely just setting the tone for the conversation, which is so important for helping each person feel comfortable that they’re both approaching it in good faith.

The exercises also cover how to handle the roles of both listening and speaking. For the former, it’s important to make sure that whomever you’re in the conversation with really feels that they’ve been heard. And when it’s your turn to respond, you can learn how to do your best to help the other person hear you, rather than just focusing on scoring rhetorical points that don’t do much to illuminate the conversation.

Finally, the Skills Workshop format acknowledges that there will always be moments that are tough to get through, regardless of how well you set the stage for the conversation. People have strong passions, and interests sometimes conflict deeply. But you can be prepared for these moments with some strategies to defuse them, helping remind both of you that you’re in the discussion for the same reason, to better understand one another.

We say “both of you” since hopefully the first situations where you deploy these skills will be one-on-one conversations. The fact is the dynamic is completely different in a group setting, like the actual Thanksgiving table, where factions form and gang-ups can escalate quickly. When you have a chance to start individual conversations on a good note before dinner, you can focus more on passing the cranberry sauce to your mother-in-law, rather than feeling blindsided by the ridiculous thing you just heard her say, and hurling it at her head.

Better Angels is encouraging organizers to plan Skills Workshops for the month of November, but even if there’s not one in your area, not to worry. The organization has developed online resources that can show you these skills in action, featuring Bill Doherty, the University of Minnesota professor who has led the development of the exercises we use in our workshops.

Let’s hope that these resources get as wide an audience as possible, so that plenty of people across the country can start to have more productive conversations with their loved ones, and that we might once again welcome the spirit of Thanksgiving, which is trying to break through the static and tell us to be thankful for our continued unity. Because we still do love each other despite our differences in thinking. So let’s get together and try to show it as we pass the mashed potatoes.


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