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Practical, expert advice on handling Thanksgiving disagreements

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(NewsNation) — Thanksgiving dinner is a time for families to come together and appreciate each other’s company over a warm meal.

Yet for many Americans, it can also be stressful when hot-button social or political topics are discussed around the dinner table. We naturally don’t like to argue with people who are closest to us. One study even found that Thanksgiving dinners have been getting shorter as political rhetoric has become more polarized.

But these differences don’t have to ruin Thanksgiving dinner. NewsNation spoke to researchers and people in the field who work to bring Americans together across political differences to collect practical advice on how to handle these disagreements.

Stick to one-on-one conversations

One of the things that can make conversations about politics around the table so contentious is when they turn into a free-for-all among many people trying to get their point across. It’s better to engage in conversations one-on-one, according to Bill Doherty, a family therapist and co-founder of the organization Braver Angels, a group that works to heal America’s political fractures.

“Whoever is the weak link in terms of being unreasonable or antagonistic, they will take over,” he warned about group conversations. “I would try to avoid it in groups unless everybody happens to agree with themselves. Mostly confine political conversations to one-on-one.”

Be curious, not combative

“The big thing is to not try to use Thanksgiving as a time to enlighten your family members about the truth about politics. In other words, don’t go into it with the sense that you’re trying to convince anybody. If you want to engage in politics, practice some curiosity rather than convincing,” Doherty advised.

Jake Teeny, a marketing professor at Northwestern University who does research on psychology, noted that going into conversations with the aim of convincing the other side can quickly lead to more combative interactions.

“One of the big issues that arise in these conversations is (that) people kind of take it upon themselves that they need to persuade or convince this other side to see the light. And when you get in this kind of persuasion mindset, it creates a sense of competition and defensiveness. And that’s usually when you start to see these tensions arise,” he said.

Teeny instead suggested trying to learn more about the other person’s point of view.

“Contrasting that with something like, ‘Hey I just want to learn more about your opinion. Hey, I just want to help you understand why I believe what I believe,'” he said. “Just kind of taking this truth-seeking or learning motivation automatically helps to kind of quell some of those immediate fight reactions that people have.”

Manu Meel serves as the CEO of BridgeUSA, which helps teach college and high school students constructive ways to voice their opinions. He suggested starting conversations by strengthening personal bonds before diving into any political topic.

“Ask your cousin…what most worries them these days? What are they most concerned about in life? And if you can center your question and your conversation about concerns, about values, about your personal life, about the recent family developments that have been happening,” he said, “then you can sort of build that shared trust that can weather the storm of the impending political discussion that follows next.”

Prepare for your triggers

We all have issues that we care deeply about and we know can get us passionate or even angry when someone brings them up in conversation.

K Scarry is well aware of these conversations. As the Director of Partnerships at The Dinner Party, she works on trust-building in communities across America.

She emphasized the importance of knowing what triggers you and preparing for that moment so you can respond productively. She offered an example of what she’d do in one of those moments:

“I feel anger take over my body and so before I respond, I’m hoping to prepare in a way that I’m going to take a deep breath. I’m going to walk away from the table for a second, and I’m going to come back,” she explained.

Put family before politics

Suzanne Degges-White, the chair of Northern Illinois University’s Counseling, Adult and Higher Education Department, emphasized the importance of remembering that people at the table are family and you don’t have to try to beat them in an argument.

“Don’t feel you have to win every disagreement or argument or debate you get into with family,” she advised. “Friends, we choose our romantic partner, but family we can’t choose ’em, so don’t try to beat ’em. Because you’re never going to beat ’em! You’re going to be part of that family as long as you’re alive. So don’t go in with, ‘I’m going to show them.'”

And in some situations, it might be best just to avoid thorny topics altogether. “In some families, it’s three hours of your life out of 365 days and if you have to keep a lid on it, manage not to go where you know it’s…dangerous waters, you can do it,” she said.


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