Reason for thanks: don’t fight over it
Thanksgiving is a time to join with friends and family, take stock of the things we cherish and, on occasion, hurl slurred invectives at loved ones around gulping mouthfuls of wine.
With the most fractious presidential election in recent memory only a few weeks behind us, this year is probably not going to be much different.
“This election has been, in my memory, probably the most divisive and nasty that I can recall, and there’s a lot of residual anger and bitterness about it that’s lingering,” said psychologist and family therapist Jerry Lazaroff.
That has translated to a certain amount of anticipatory dread for many of Lazaroff’s clients locally who might have supported Hillary Clinton and will be traveling to parts of the state where Donald Trump did particularly well.
“They’re anticipating they’re going to get hassled about it and taunted about their views and jabbed a little bit about their decisions,” he said. “What I hope is that the host or hostess of Thanksgiving dinner will strive to make their get together a conflictfree zone, anticipating that not everybody is going to be of the same persuasion and voted the same.”
To help ease tensions before they arise, Lazaroff suggested hosts could announce certain topics are off limits or that only respectful discussion will be tolerated. If the conversation does veer into uncomfortable or chaotic waters, he said, a gentle but firm redirection might be in order.
“Hopefully the host or hostess would set the tone,” he said. “(They) should strive to keep things civil and to remember what the point of Thanksgiving is: You’re supposed to be grateful and appreciative for all the goodness that one has in their life.”
Tracy Hornig, director
of mediations and training at the Center for Resolutions in Media, agreed it might not be a bad idea to go over the “what ifs” of the annual gathering and have a game plan for political discussions. Most people will respect a host that sets some ground rules, she said, and hosts should feel comfortable enforcing those rules if necessary.
It is also important to know your own triggers if you want to avoid getting caught in the trap of being the one who escalates the conversation, Hornig said. Keeping an eye out for warning signs will help you know when to dial it down or take a break before things become too heated.
Hornig also suggested those who do throw themselves into the fray keep any discussions of politics squarely on the topic at hand, not the personality of the other person engaged in the conversation.
“If you’re somebody who wants to be engaged in conversation, it’s really important to keep the focus on yourself,” she said. “If you’re debating a certain topic and you say to the other individual, ‘Well, you like this and you think he’s great or you think she did that,’ it comes across to the other person like they’re being attacked.”
Offering “I” statements instead – such as “I don’t agree with candidate A on X, Y, and Z” – allows you to convey an opinion without getting personal or appearing to make a statement about the person sitting across from you.
Hornig noted that conflict itself is not necessarily bad if it is productive. Two opposing viewpoints pitched in battle can be a good thing if both sides are having a mutually respectful exchange of ideas. But listen to the tone and check the body language – at the point anyone is getting worked up and yelling, it is probably too late to get anything across to them, said Hornig.
“They’ve basically shut out anything that someone else might try to share with them, so any attempt to persuade them is futile,” she said. “What you can do is try to help just de-escalate that anger by saying supportive things like, ‘Hey, I know this is a difficult topic … people have strong feelings about what’s happening in our country right now, I can see you’re upset, that’s not what I wanted to happen.’ Just to bring them back down so that you can engage in a more constructive conversation.”
It might also be helpful to set a few anchors of common ground to return to, said Hernig. These conversations tend to become heated because both sides share a passion about the state of the country and the direction it is heading, she said.
Those commonalities should be kept in mind when discussing differing points of view.
Lazaroff also noted it always takes two people to argue. It is perfectly reasonable for one party to simply refuse to engage in an upsetting or harmful discussion, he said. If the other side refuses to abide, it is also OK to walk away.
“Or, depending on where you are, drive away,” Lazaroff said. “If it becomes a hostile setting that’s not enjoyable, you can repeat throughout the interaction that ‘this is making me highly uncomfortable, it needs to stop’ or, if necessary, ‘I’m going to go home.’”
While having your respective candidate’s bona fides at hand last year might have been advisable, Lazaroff cautioned against bringing those arguments to the table postelection.
“Whatever one’s argument or position would be, whether it’s valid or not, it’s only going to be met with rancor from the other side and an alternative position, and therefore an argument is likely to ensue,” he said. “I think the best advice would be to just avoid discussing it and saying, ‘Hey, Thanksgiving is about being close and being grateful for what we have, and I don’t want it to be tainted by any political talk tonight.”
Protests like this one involving hundreds of Rutgers University students have popped up across the country in the wake of the election of Donald Trump as president. Several local experts have tips to avoid allowing political squabbling to ruin your holiday gathering.
Demonstrators hold a banner as they protest in Pennsylvania Avenue outside of the Trump Hotel in Washington in opposition of President-elect Donald Trump, on Saturday,
Dr. Jerry Lazaroff