Question: Are holiday gatherings, particularly those with family, the best place to have deep discussions about politics, religion, and personal values?
Answer: Probably not.
Question: Are they the setting for a lot of these conversations anyway?
Answer: For most people, yes.
Over three decades training leaders to have hard conversations, I’ve been able to develop some approaches that are just as helpful at the holiday dinner table as they are in the corporate board room. For most of us, there is more at stake at the dinner table. Here are some suggestions for navigating these potentially explosive encounters in a way that preserves your integrity while respecting others at the table:
Start by assuming positive intent.
Assume no one has come to the meal intending to be a jerk. There’s a good chance that some of your table-mates feel the same way about you and your ideology as you do about theirs. Put the weaponizing language on a shelf, look at the people around you, and believe that they, too, would rather have a peaceful time together.
Be inquisitive and honor their story.
Use this as an opportunity to listen and gain a better understanding of people with whom you share deep ties, even if you don’t choose to be with them for most of the year. Ask questions until you learn something about them that you didn't already know. And if a polarizing comment about politics comes up, try something like: “I realize I don’t know what’s led you to feel that way. I don’t agree, but I’m curious about how you came to this conclusion.”
Honor your own story.
Hopefully, your family will reciprocate and give you the opportunity to explain how you have come to your perspectives. But don’t count on it. If you have worked on your own emotional intelligence and have learned to withhold judgment long enough to truly hear another person, then you are the person responsible for the tenor of the conversation—even if others fall short.
If you feel that remaining silent violates a commitment you’ve made to yourself regarding an important issue, speak up. But be mindful of your words, and be honest about your intentions. If you are hoping to persuade someone to change their opinion, you should probably let that go.
Create an atmosphere of grace.
Take the time and energy to embody a spirit of grace and allow it to be resident at the table. Yes, this can be exhausting. But it's also an opportunity for each of us to look in the mirror, make a choice about how we want to show up, and then bring this aspiration alive through words that foster connection, reconciliation, empathy and compassion.
The holiday dinner table can quickly become a battlefield. But it is also an opportunity to buck the tide of polarizing anxiety that dominates America at this particular moment. You can choose to do something different: to listen, engage more fully, and act with genuine empathy towards those you care about.
The results may surprise you.