How to Survive Thanksgiving With Your Unwoke Relatives

Thanksgiving conversations

Did you leave your family Thanksgiving dinner last year feeling like you were the one who got carved up and digested? You weren't alone. In an increasingly polarized sociological climate, family events where opinions differ can feel fraught with high stakes and conflicting moral obligations. And if you're already dreading Thanksgiving because all of the brawlin' that's sure to go down, you might be considering opting out of the festivities entirely. (Here are ways to celebrate a solo Thanksgiving this year.;)

In this week's Teach Me Something New podcast, Alexandra Carter, Columbia law professor and mediation expert, talks to Brit and Anj about the powers of persuasion to get the results you want in a conversation. The key to the Thanksgiving political discussion? Listening, asking open questions, and finding some common ground.

"I might say something like, 'I hear that you're concerned about national security and that's what led me to have this viewpoint.' So sometimes using a little bit of focusing on what you have in common can help you to have a civil conversation and not have anybody throwing mashed potatoes across the table," says Carter.

Here are more expert-backed tips for navigating the holiday awkwardness, even if it's just via Zoom. Make stuffing your face great again this Thanksgiving by implementing our seven-step plan.

1. Choose your battles ahead of time. You're not going to change everyone's opinion about all of the things over the course of a meal and a football game. You might want to show up ready for a duel of words with your Facebook-meme-king cousin, but that's just going to put your opinionated family member on the offensive from the moment you walk in. Decide ahead of time if there's one issue that you really cannot keep your mouth shut about if it comes up, and have two or three talking points ready that clarify your position on that topic. If your hot button does get pushed, your talking points will help you keep from making things personal.

2. Confer with the host. If you feel comfortable with the person that's organizing or hosting Thanksgiving, speak to him or her in advance about how you can be on Team Keep the Peace. Most people aren't keen on a political brouhaha breaking out around their dinner table, so they'll probably be relieved to hear that you're on board and willing to help make the day go smoothly for everyone. Brainstorm some ideas about seating arrangements or wholesome activities to fill the idle family time that can lead to trading barbs.

3. Make it a game. Caitlin Bergstein, a Boston-based matchmaker and relationship expert for Three Day Rule, suggests a fun twist on the swear jar concept. “If your family is up for the challenge, you can even make it a game. Each time someone mentions something political, they have to put a dollar in a jar (or take a drink, depending on how your family celebrates the holiday). At the end of the night, that cash can be put aside for the next family get together!"

4. Have a moment of silence. Sometimes the idea of a quiet table can be intimidating (all those chewing noises!), but encouraging a moment of reflection among your holiday guests can actually be transformative. Whether you observe several seconds of silence in honor of relatives you've lost, as a way to silently acknowledge your individual blessings, or as an act of prayer or meditation, you've hopefully brought the room back to focus on each other's company and the gift that it is to be together.

5. Be an active listener. If your one doggedlypersistent aunt can't let go of her obsession with the latest political scandal, reconsider what she's actually trying to tell you. Chances are, it's not just about what she saw on the news. “Assume that your polarizing relative actually probably just wants to connect, feel respected, and reduce their own anxiety about holiday gatherings, and interpret even difficult behavior as such," advises Mary Fisher, a Salt Lake City psychotherapist who specializes in family relationships. “Express the desire to connect while redirecting the conversation," Fisher recommends. Emphasize the fact that you're interested in protecting the time your family spends together. That can help soften the blow when you ask to instead hear them share a family memory or talk about a hobby you both share.

6. Disengage. Remember that if angry words or offensive language start flying at you across the sweet potato pie, you don't have to respond. Have a script in mind to use, something like, “While I hear where you're coming from, I don't share your opinion, and I'm done talking about it today." Convey the message that you're quite clear on the matter being discussed, and you're not going to take the bait. You may have to repeat yourself several times, or you may choose to remain silent until things cool down around you. Either one is okay.

7. Duck out early. If you feel like you have to retreat from the situation entirely, do it. One of the best things about being an adult is leaving when you want to leave. You don't have to subject yourself, your spouse, or your family to any kind of dialogue that is insulting, bigoted, or aggressive. Fisher shares these words of advice: “While we might think that the holidays are the time to resolve differences, they are actually the time to affirm and nurture connection, which can be an uphill battle with politically polarizing relatives." If you don't feel like a connection is being nurtured and the environment is not good for you to be in, say goodbye and make a break for it.

Do you have a game plan for surviving Thanksgiving 2020? Can mashed potatoes ever mix well with politics? Tell us on Twitter @BritandCo!

This article has been updated from a previous post.