8 Tips to Get You Through Difficult Conversations This Holiday Season

The point isn’t to win. It’s to ignite understanding.
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During the holidays, we might be able to turn down the volume of hostility and create some threads of understanding. 

Photo by PeopleImages / Getty Images.

It’s a year since the election. You’re preparing to get together with friends or family for a Thanksgiving feast or looking ahead to end-of-year holidays, but there’s one thing you’re dreading: the conversation with the family member or friend who voted for Donald Trump.

What do you say? How do you deal with a divide that has fractured a nation and even reached into our families?

I recently sat down with Linda Stout, founder of Spirit in Action, who grew up in a poor, white community in rural North Carolina, and who has, for years, organized poor people across race, class, and political lines. Her insights helped me to see the opportunities in these kinds of difficult conversations. So, inspired by her stories, here’s an eight-step plan for getting through the holidays:

1. Prepare in advance 

Bring short statements of gratitude, poems, a song, or a story to the gathering. Or perhaps bring history: Stout used to read aloud from Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States so her children would hear the unsanitized version of early encounters between settlers and Native people.

2. Listen

When difficult political discussions come up, listen first, Stout said, even to those you disagree with. Listen especially for the other person’s struggles and hopes. When people feel heard, they are more open to other viewpoints.

3. Acknowledge the other person’s experience and opinions

Ask respectful questions based on authentic curiosity about their lives.

4. Share stories

Tell your story, too. Center your story in your heart: Explain why you care, what worries you, what you hope for. Allow yourself to be vulnerable.

Stout told me that her family has a tradition of storytelling, but if it doesn’t come naturally to you, prepare stories to share in advance. The best stories are ones you or someone close to you experienced. But you can also turn to stories you’ve heard or read. The main thing is that they are true and heartfelt.

5. Share facts, but sparingly

Talk about what you know to be true, but don’t use information as a weapon; use it to increase understanding. Especially in a time when so many are suspicious of experts, trusted friends and family can be better at breaking through the fake news and offering a reality check.

6. Avoid jargon

Many progressives speak in ways that “leave people behind,” Stout said. Avoid in-group language. This may be difficult if you mainly talk to activist friends or to other people in your profession; in both cases, language signifies your identity and your community—and excludes people. Specific, simple, straightforward words are most powerful.

Stout told me about her conservative, Southern relatives who were complaining to her about a nearby Occupy encampment. Stout explained that the occupiers objected to growing inequality—that corporations were getting huge tax breaks and government giveaways while hard-working families couldn’t catch a break. Then there was silence, she told me. “Why don’t they explain it so people can understand it,” they asked her. While language about the “99 percent” had no meaning to them, Stout’s explanation worked for them.

7. Be patient

If things go off the rails, back up and try a different approach, Stout said. The point isn’t to win points. It’s to ignite understanding.

8. Make a request

Consider making one modest request. (And be ready to accept a challenge to do something different yourself.) Stout told me about a cab driver in Savannah, Georgia, who was railing against Obamacare. She told him about her nephew’s emergency appendectomy and the huge medical bills that resulted. Then she made one request. Stout asked the cab driver to watch news stations other than Fox each night for just one week. When she took another ride with him a week later, he told her how much he liked Chris Matthews from MSNBC because he “was a good ol’ boy” and that he had decided to limit his Fox News viewing to just one night per week.

The divides in our country have become profound. Fear of an uncertain future, economic dislocation, fake news, social isolation, and the belligerence of our tweeter-in-chief have contributed to this. And racism, sexism, and other “isms” are always just below the surface, ready to pop up when people are stressed. These divides keep us distracted and distrustful of each other, while dirty energy corporations continue polluting our air and water, and the military-industrial complex continues to threaten our future.

During the holidays, we might be able to turn down the volume of hostility and create some threads of understanding. And that would be something to be thankful for.