Search form

Scroll To Top

4 Steps That Will Get You Through a Political Thanksgiving in Peace

4 Steps That Will Get You Through a Political Thanksgiving in Peace


Researchers have identified four steps to engaging with people who don't see eye-to-eye with you.

Remember the days when Thanksgiving was a fun time to eat, watch a parade, and maybe flip through some toy catalogs? Those simpler times now seem like a collective dream.

You might feel exhausted and frustrated after all that mayhem that is going on in the political world, but here's some good news: this upcoming holiday is your first opportunity to have a meaningful impact on the way that people vote, starting with your family.

I know, confronting family about politics is exactly the sort of stress that you want to avoid, this year more than ever. Fortunately, researchers have identified four steps to engaging with people who don't see eye-to-eye with you. These four steps have been proven effective in the Civil Rights Movement when they were honed by experienced mediators. The steps have been effective with marriage equality, when they helped tip the balance of public opinion so significantly that people stopped voting against the freedom to marry and started voting for it. And they're even effective in business settings when they're used to deal with office conflict.

You'll want to get to know these four steps forward and backward, because they'll serve you well over the next few days--whether over the dinner table with your family, in Twitter debates, or when de-escalating tension at a bar.

And it all starts with listening.

That's it--the first step is simply to listen. That can be harder than it sounds, especially when you don't want to hear what the other person is saying. You'll be tempted to argue back, to win points, and to correct them, but hold off on that for now. They're far more likely to listen to you after you've been listening to them.

Let them know that you're hearing them by recapping what they've said. "It sounds like...," or "if I'm understanding you...," or "so what you're saying is...," are good ways to start sentences when you're in step one.

That listening will get you to step two, which is all about feelings. Once again, you don't need to argue or debate at this point; you simply need to ask them about their feelings, and tell them about yours. Start sentences with "Are you feeling tense about..." or "I'm worried about..." or "Do you feel relieved that..."

And yes, I know, it might seem ludicrous to be holding a therapy session when it seems like the world's doomsday clock is at 11:59 pm. Relax and remember that when you're sitting down to dinner on Thursday, there's not much you can do about whose finger is on the nuclear button; but there's plenty that you can do to reach out to conservative relatives and prime them for the next election.

Step three is to turn the conversation to everyone's needs--and not small needs, but the big, fundamental, universal human needs. Things like "I need to protect myself," or "I need to trust the people around me," or "I need to provide for my family."

It can be hard to get people to talk about these needs. Many of us don't even realize that we have them. But simple "why" and "how" questions can get you there. "Why is that something you want?" and "How is that going to help you?" can help your Republican relatives get away from "make America great again" to "I need to feel proud of where I live."

You can share your needs here as well, especially when they dovetail with your family's. If they say "I need to feel proud of where I live," that's a perfect time to say, "so do I," and then circle back with one of your feelings: "and I don't feel proud of a country where people get fired for being gay."

This brings us to step four: the ask. Make a request of your relatives--not a demand or an ultimatum, but a question. "Would you read an article?" or "Can you stop telling jokes with slurs?" or "Could you check that an article is true before sharing it?"

Be prepared for them to say no. If they do, it's probably because they see that request as violating one of their needs. If that happens, it's time to circle back around to those needs, understand them a little better, and figure out a version of your request that works for both of you.

And let's just acknowledge how touchy-feely this all is. Talking about your feelings and asking someone to tell different jokes might seem completely absurd, like, "Oh, if only someone had talked to Hitler about his feelings!"

Just to be clear, I'm not saying that these nonviolent communication techniques are the only discourse you should ever engage in. By all means, shout at your elected officials and counter-protest KKK rallies. But when it comes to family and friends, you have a special kind of access and trust that can allow you to see eye-to-eye. If you can get them to understand why this Republican administration is so dangerous to you, you can change how they vote.

We know that these techniques work from past civil rights struggles. And we also know that sometimes they can take a long time. After your Thanksgiving conversation, you're going to need to keep this dialogue going with more listening, talking about feelings, sharing needs, and making requests.

Reaching out is hard work.

But just remember to keep your eyes on the goal: open your family's eyes to the risks that this administration poses to you, guide them towards an understanding of how their votes affected you, and then return to the days when Thanksgiving wasn't about politics, but about eating, parades, and toy catalogues.

Matt Baume is a writer and storyteller based in Seattle. He's the author of the book Defining Marriage, which chronicles the 40-year fight for marriage equality; and he's the host of the podcast The Sewers of Paris, where gay men share revealing personal stories about how entertainment has changed their lives. Follow him @mattbaume.

This post was originally published on Nov. 23, 2016.

Advocate Channel - HuluOut / Advocate Magazine - Jonathan Groff and Wayne Brady

From our Sponsors

Most Popular

Latest Stories

Matt Baume