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Compared to two years ago, Americans today are more likely to say it is “stressful and frustrating” to have political conversations with people they disagree with,” according to a poll by Pew Research Center. And these days, we can’t agree on much of anything, except that we can’t agree, this NBC poll points out.
Many of these kinds of conversations are about to unfold at Thanksgiving tables across the country. We turned to some the people that we trust most — doctors, nurses, teachers, military officers and pharmacists, according to Gallup’s annual poll — for advice on how to diffuse heated dinner conversations and stay civil when tensions are running high.
“Thanksgiving can be pretty intense for many families,” said Colonel Karen Meeker, the recruiting director for the Army Office of the Chief of Chaplains, which offers a range of religious support activities for members of the Army. That can be especially true for members of the military, who often face “a lot of different expectations” from family and friends when they come home for the holidays, Meeker said. Meeker advises soldiers to be “prepared emotionally” for what those intense moments, and “make a plan for how they might experience that.”
Military training can help members remain calm in these moments, Meeker added. “True strength is really the ability to have restraint in situations that are very intense, and very emotional.”
“The way you deliver information is as important as the information you’re delivering,” said Jason Smith, a trauma surgeon at the University of Louisville. At Smith’s hospital in Louisville, Kentucky, which treated just under 600 gunshot wounds last year, he often sees people on the worst days of their lives, which he said has taught him to think carefully about how he speaks about an issue.
“A lot of times when people are challenged they want to immediately challenged back,” he said. “You can’t rush things like this. Sometimes you need to sit and talk.”
“I’m always committed to never taking sides on an issue,” said Jerome Price, a history teacher at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, Maryland. “I will never tell the students, this is what I believe, this is what I think.”
Rather than express his own views about an issue outright, Price said he tries to connect with his students by sharing something personal. He recently led a conversation about gun control, and talked about the anxieties he faces when approached by police officers, especially as an African American man. “That’s my reality, and I can’t push that away,” he said. “Find something that’s personal to you — kids will be touched by that. And this goes for any teacher.”
WATCH: What unites Americans regardless of political beliefs
Cynda Rushton, a nurse who teaches ethics courses at the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing, said she always asks her students to consider whether what they are about to say is true, beneficial, and necessary before they jump to take a side about something. “If the answer to any of these questions is ‘no,’’ Rushton said, she asks them “to pause and to more fully reflect on intention, content, and tone.”
“I think listening is key, rather than always thinking of the next thing that I’m going to say,” said Laura Palombi, a pharmacist in Duluth, Minnesota. “Having the patience to do that can be tough.”
Palombi, who works with patients in addiction recovery and active addiction, said patients she deals with are often going through experiences she doesn’t know about. “All sorts of behind-the-scenes things can happen that can lead people to be really angry when they come in,” she said. “I think it comes down to listening, really taking the time to listen to what a person has to say and taking the opportunity to think about it from their perspective.”
“Put yourself in that person’s shoes and imagine there’s something going on in their life,” said Smith of the University of Louisville. “Give people the benefit of the doubt — that leads to civility.”
“When ‘civility’ starts to head in the wrong direction, my recommended formula is 1) acknowledge 2) empathize 3) redirect and 4) qualify/provide options. That sounds academic, but it is how I have dealt with potential downturn with patients or people I work with,” said Jason Varin, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota College of Pharmacy. “Some of my favorite patients over the years are individuals that I believed were grumpy and mad at the world. Listening to them without reacting negatively and letting them know you are at least trying to understand how they feeling, was something that no one may have done for them before.”
“When speaking to students about civility, I tell them to never let anyone take you out of character,” said Teresa Chavis, a marketing teacher at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Virginia. “You can have differing opinions and still respect one another.”
Courtney Vinopal is a general assignment reporter at the PBS NewsHour.
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