McCormack Speaks

How NOT to Avoid Political Conversations at Your Holiday Dinner


by Karen Ross
Department of Conflict Resolution, Human Security, and Global Governance

holiday dinner

Credit: Flickr user Zeetz Jones

Are you hoping you can avoid political conversations with family at the holiday dinner table or are you dreading a confrontation with that know-it-all brother-in-law? The recent election cycle has made evident the deep divisions that exist in the United States. As we head into the holiday season, the desire to avoid political conversations is understandable. These are difficult discussions to have in any context, all the more so at a holiday dinner in the wake of an election campaign that has left people along the political spectrum feeling angry, fearful, joyful, arrogant, and dismissive. It is easy for conversations to turn into attacks that leave nobody feeling better and certainly don’t result in changes of opinion.

Meaningful engagement requires us to shed the ‘win-lose’ debate mentality and instead focus on creating opportunities for dialogue. This means: try to avoid political conversations where the focus is on persuasion and convincing rather than listening and understanding. As a conflict resolution approach, dialogue in groups is based on a set of principles that can apply to many one-on-one conversations as well. Here are a few to keep in mind and that may prevent Great Aunt Alice from making your blood boil:

Speak from your own experience. This actually has two parts.

First–tell your own story. Rather than making statements in terms of what is wrong about the other person’s perspective, think about what it is that you want that person to know about you. How are you feeling? Why do you feel this way? What is it about the ideas or policies being defended by others that upsets you?

Second–don’t try to generalize this experience to others (or make general claims about individuals whose perspective differs from yours). It is far easier for us to find common ground in personal stories than in abstract comments. Also, hearing personal stories leads us towards inquiring more deeply about these stories and experiences, which enables us to gain a better understanding of the complexity of individuals’ perspectives.

Challenge the ideas, not the people. There is little to be gained from attacking someone else personally, but there is much to be lost. This doesn’t mean you can’t challenge the ideas that others present – indeed, challenging them through questions that probe and require clarification is central to more deeply understanding their underlying needs and emotions.  Attacking individuals on a personal basis, on the other hand, is unlikely to accomplish much more than shutting down any desire they might have to engage.

Engage in active listening. The power of dialogue lies in really hearing what people have to say when their perspective differs from yours.  In so many of our conversations, we are already thinking about what our next retort will be in the middle of our conversation partners’ statements. When we do this, we miss the opportunity to really hear and understand others’ stories and engage deeply with what is under the surface. Engaging in active listening means checking our desire to immediately respond and score points. A good way to practice this at the holiday dinner table is to summarize what your conversation partner has said and after reflecting it back to them, ask them if you got it right. This might seem awkward, but it’s a way of making sure that you’re actually hearing what was said, and that you’re interpreting the meaning of others’ words correctly. It also provides a basis for asking questions when you are not clear about what someone else means.

Individuals on all sides of the ideological divide harbor concerns that will not be addressed through conversation alone, and in some contexts it might be best to avoid political conversations altogether. However, engaging in meaningful conversations is an important start to learning where common ground exists and how we might start moving together past the polarization characteristic of the United States today. And while the holidays can be a stressful time, the holiday dinner table may be just the right place to start that work. Remember these three ground rules of dialogue and you might just enjoy chatting with your brother-in-law for a change.

Got conflict? Learn more about our graduate programs in conflict resolution.

Karen RossKaren Ross (PhD, Indiana University) is an assistant professor in the Department of Conflict Resolution, Human Security, and Global Governance at UMass Boston’s McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies. Her research focuses on conceptual and methodological issues at the intersection between education, peacebuilding, and social activism. Much of her research is based in Israel, focusing on the conflict between Jews and Palestinians (within Israel) and between Israel and Palestine, with involvement in additional interventions in South Africa and the United States.


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