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How To Make Tense Holiday Conversations Civil (Or Even Productive)

Avoiding hot-button issues isn’t always possible, so we asked the experts how to steer clear of a screaming match.

How To Make Tense Holiday Conversations Civil (Or Even Productive)
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Remember last Thanksgiving? It was just a few weeks after the presidential election, and emotions were running high. But if conversations with your extended family were tense and awkward last year, it’s likely going to be even worse in our current divisive political environment. While we can all try not to talk about politics or anything controversial during the holidays, sometimes, it just comes up. After all, these are the people that are closest to us. It’s almost impossible to pretend that everything is fine with news of mass shootings, tax and healthcare changes, political scandals, and daily reports of rampant sexual misconduct. 

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But tense conversations don’t have to end with anyone screaming or in tears–in fact, when done right, they can be extremely transformative. Fast Company spoke to the three founders of The People’s SupperEmily May, Jennifer Bailey, and Lennon Flowers. Their purpose,  according to their website, is to “repair the breach in our interpersonal relationships across political, ideological, and identity differences, leading to more civil discourse.” Launched after the 2016 election, The People’s Supper hosted their first dinner in January 2017, and to date, they have hosted over 900 dinners, from Wilkesboro, North Carolina, to Brooklyn, New York.

Individuals can sign up to attend or host a dinner on The People’s Supper website. If they sign up to be a host, The People’s Supper will give them a hosting guide on how to facilitate conversations, and will also arrange a call with an expert facilitator. They will then connect the hosts with guests who have signed up to attend a supper in their area. There are two tracks that hosts can sign up for–a “healing” supper, with an emphasis on belonging and helping each other through shared struggles, and a “bridging” supper, with an emphasis on dialogue with guests across a diverse political spectrum.

Here are some of their thoughts on how you can keep your holiday conversations civil, or even productive.

Agree To A Set Of Ground Rules

At The People’s Supper, participants agree to abide by a set of ground rules before tucking into their feast. May told Fast Company that this practice can be helpful at a Thanksgiving dinner, particularly if you have family and friends who are prone to arguing about contentious issues. “The ground rules don’t need to be: We’re not going to talk about politics. They can be: We’re going to grant you the benefit of the doubt. If you find yourself trying to influence others with your opinion, stop,” May asserted.

These ground rules can come in handy if for whatever reason tensions do escalate. Of course, this would only work if everyone agrees to enforce these rules, and are committed to (gently) reminding other guests when they slip up.


Related: One Brain Scientist’s Secret To Keeping The Peace During The Holidays 

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Set The Scene For An Open Conversation

May also told Fast Company that the lead-up work before everyone starts talking can be just as crucial to the conversation itself. Flowers said, “I think Thanksgiving is such a unique kind of opportunity . . . it’s the one day we allow ourselves to be cheesy.” For example, “Families kick off conversations with gratitude rituals.”

The People’s Supper, for example, starts their meal with a poem reading. May admitted that this might not work for every family, but she suggested that practices like lighting candles for things you’re grateful for can help everyone focus on what’s really important. The key question to consider, said May, is, “How do we create a dynamic where we can be with each other without hating each other?”


Related: There Are Actually 3 Kinds Of Listening–Here’s How To Master Them 


Train Yourself To Listen

When we asked the founders to pick the one habit that everyone should try to adopt this Thanksgiving, they were unanimous in their answer. Start listening. Bailey said, “We love to hear ourselves talk.” But the world would be a much better place, according to Bailey, “if we did a little less talking and a little bit more deep listening, and . . . hearing what the other person is communicating and [not focus on] what [our] response to the other person is going to be.”

Fast Company contributor and communications coach Judith Humphrey recently shared some insights on what emotionally intelligent habits we can start practicing in order to be better listeners. Some smart gestures include reinforcing how others feel–which in turn encourages others to be more open, and probing for more details in order to discover their thought process.

Focus On Personal Stories, Not Arguments

As humans, we all like to think that we make decisions based on logic and data. However, Flowers pointed out that this is not true. When we have contentious conversations, she said, “We shy away from our feelings–we want to stick with academic arguments and have the long set of bullet points that’s going to be what we use to sway the other person to think they’re wrong. No humans make decisions that way. We think we rationalize our way into decisions, but when you get into it, we make gut responses.”

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Arguments, facts, and data can all be used in favor of or against a particular point, but it’s a lot more difficult to raise issues when it comes to people’s personal stories. For example, if the dinner table topic turns to immigration, Flowers advises staying away from having back-and-forth debates on policy points. Focus on sharing your interactions with the immigrants you know, or talk about a time when you felt welcome or unwelcome in a place, and what that’s like for you. Sticking to “I” statements, Flowers said, helps to continue conversations about issues “from a place of mutual respect and trust.”


Related: How Your Brain Keeps You Believing Crap That Isn’t True


Embrace Emotions, But Don’t Let It Dictate Your Actions

While it might be tempting to suppress our emotions to keep the peace, doing this can be counterproductive. After all, as Bailey pointed out, “I don’t think emotions are a bad thing, they tell us something about where we’re at.”

“What I do think is harmful is when we act with the emotions of someone who wants to hurt us.” Bailey said that when she feels an emotional reaction, she acknowledges the feeling, as well as the choice that it is up to her whether to react immediately, or take a deep breath. As Flowers noted, there is a “difference between reacting and responding.”

Humphrey also identified this difference in her previous Fast Company piece. She suggested that before responding, one should think about how they can “meet the person speaking at their level” or “find common grounds based on whatever might be causing the emotions.” Doing this is a much more effective use of your emotional energy because it’s more likely to lead to a valuable conversation as opposed to an “I’m right and you’re wrong” contest.

Know When To Retreat Or Ask For Help

Despite all of our best intentions, there are some people who have no interest in engaging in meaningful conversations. Bailey advised that when we recognize that, it’s crucial that we prioritize ourselves and our own self-care before continuing the conversation. “That doesn’t mean you exit forever, but maybe you go and walk around the block,” she suggested.

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May also pointed out that in her experience, the issues that come up have usually been there for years–Thanksgiving simply creates a stage for these issues to bubble up. One thing that you can do if you expect this is to “enlist your other family members” for help, May suggested. They can act as “proactive bystanders . . . and say something so that you don’t have to.”

This article has been updated with the most recent number of dinners that The People’s Supper have hosted. 

About the author

Anisa is the Editorial Assistant for Fast Company's Leadership section. She covers everything from personal development, entrepreneurship and the future of work.

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