Are you looking forward to sitting down with family members this year in our ever more polarized political climate? What will you do when your brother brings up that topic? Are you the type to quickly change the subject and pull out a Christmas movie so nobody has to talk, or do your ears get red as you craft the perfect comeback to put that family member in his or her place?
Families are complicated enough, even without politics entering the picture. My extended family on my dad’s side is Italian – to be more specific, Sicilian-Italian. As you may have heard, “Never go in against a Sicilian when death (or politics) is on the line.” That pretty much sums it up. This family was loud and everyone was RIGHT – or so each believed. The first time my husband was in a room with them, he just sat there and watched, bewildered.
Whether your family is like mine or a little more subdued like my husband’s, I’d like to propose that this holiday, you can join your family gathering without fear of needing to “keep the peace” by sweeping things under the rug, nor do you need to rear your tail feathers and “set the record straight.” There is a third option. You can actually learn to cultivate what I call “brave conversations.”
Here are four tips on cultivating a brave conversation at your table this holiday.
Some of the things people say are insensitive, offensive, or just plain stupid. Those comments are bones. Too many of them and you may need to change the subject.
Rather than state your opinion right off the bat, ask a thought-provoking question.
Someone says something you don’t agree with. You might be tempted to nod and pretend that you agree, or to raise your voice in protest. The reality is that something is going on inside that person that you don’t understand. Don’t get angry. Get curious. Perspectives are not born in a void. Take a few seconds to stop and formulate a good, non-aggressive question. Find out why this person feels the way they do. It will provide insight into what makes him or her tick.
Prepare and season your conversation, not just the turkey.
If you know before going into the event that there is one family member you have a particularly hard time connecting with, prepare yourself in advance. Spend a few minutes thinking about a couple of ways that you can express authentic appreciation for who that person is – the unique gift that person is to the family. Don’t just run headlong into a debate unless you’ve seasoned that relationship a little with some words of kindness and awareness of who they are.
Acknowledge your emotions around the topic.
Many times, when engaging in political discourse, we forget that we are human beings, not just human thinkers. We forget to acknowledge that we have feelings and experiences that shape our judgements. In fact, sometimes the acknowledgement of our frail humanity can make us feel weak, so we refuse to go there. This is a common mistake. In reality, it is the expression of our vulnerabilities that often humanizes us and draw others to us.
In our monthly Brave Conversations meetings in Anchorage we use a specific question to start many of our cafe discussions. It is a question that causes us to articulate the feelings we have around an issue before we delve in. Sometimes this question is very unexpected because it is not a normal part of debate. Our goal at Brave Conversations is to connect and understand – not to win. This can be your goal too with your loved ones. If the goal is to connect, then it is healthy to be the first to acknowledge how you feel.
Eat the meat and spit the bones.
You would never take a turkey leg and eat all the meat off and then just keep on gnawing at the bones for the rest of the night. That would be insane. But we do that with conversations. Some of the things people say are insensitive, offensive, or just plain stupid. Those comments are bones. Too many of them and you may need to change the subject. It is possible to focus on the meat – the nuggets of truth and authenticity in the conversation – and leave the rest on the table to take out with the trash.
A Brave Conversation is one in which both people are invited to the table to bring their whole self to the conversation – thoughts, feelings, and experiences. My hope is that by leaning into one another and not shying away from important topics we will begin, little by little, to transform our own perspectives as well as the culture around us.
If you’d like to join our local Anchorage group where we cultivate Brave Conversations on a monthly basis, please ask to join our mailing list at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll make sure you stay in the loop. Our next event is Jan. 23 at 6 p.m. at 12100 Coffee and Communitas.