PBS NewsHour’s guide to holiday civility

Political discussions with relatives often get complicated on Thanksgiving. This year, after one of the most divisive presidential elections in recent memory, dinner table debates are likely to be even more heated than usual. We turned to experts across the political spectrum for advice on how to avoid a political food fight.

New York Times columnist David Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, and Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus are regular NewsHour contributors. Susan David is a psychologist at Harvard Medical School and the author of the book Emotional Agility. Kali Holloway is a senior writer and associate editor of media and culture for the left-leaning news site Alternet. Jose Vargas is the founder and CEO of Define American, a nonprofit immigration advocacy group.

We hope this guide will help get you and your family through Turkey Day in one piece!

How to speak to relatives with opposing views

Ruth Marcus: The first place to start with Thanksgiving is maybe to get people to pause and remember the name of the holiday. We’re supposed to be giving thanks, and even if you are not always thankful for some of your relatives, they are your relatives.

Susan David: You can have compassion and feel love toward someone, and it doesn’t mean you agree with everything they agree with. We can love someone and disagree. Thanksgiving and elections are no different.

Jose Vargas: I don’t think we, as a country, know how to have conversations anymore. We all just project instead of listening. Listening is a radical act. More than anything, we need to listen to each other.

Setting ground rules

Susan David: Establish a shared response. If you know there is going to be a political conversation, you could share an agreement that you maybe don’t want to talk about it, or share an agreement that the common objective is to leave the conversation with everyone feeling respected.

David Brooks: I just try to keep in mind that what’s really important in my life is the relationships I have with the people I love. Politics we can differ about, but it will not deny any fundamental affection we have for each other.

Jose Vargas: Everyone will have something to say. That is what family is. [I will] nod and smile and explain why I choose to say: I am home, this is my home, no president can take that away from me. No presidency changes that.

Kali Holloway: You have to go into it knowing that mountains don’t move overnight. You can’t expect to have a conversation that is going to end up with you and who you are talking to ending up on the exact same page.

Is talking about deep social divides productive?

Kali Holloway: I think denigrating the personhood of a lot of Americans is the conversation we need to be having. Not having those discussions is detrimental to us as a country. I would encourage particularly white people to go home and have these difficult conversations.

Susan David: How do we make change in a country if we can’t make change around our table? If we can’t have a civil conversation with those we love about these issues, then as a country the point of healing is only farther away than it seems.

Being honest about your emotions helps

Susan David: It’s really important to process those emotions by being accurate with what it is you are feeling. Recognize you feel disappointed or betrayed or sad or fearful. When you are accurate with your feelings, you can process them more effectively.

How to end a political battle if it gets out of hand

David Brooks: There’s a truism that you should never go to sleep mad. But I’m a believer that sometimes you just need to go to sleep. Get a good night’s sleep and have a conversation about something else the next day. Politics is not that important.

Mark Shields: A false fire alarm is always helpful. Or announcing that the turkey is ready, even if it isn’t. The fire alarm or smoke alarm, either one. Other than that, just turn to Uncle Eugene who has a theory that left-handed Presbyterians are taking over the Federal Reserve and say, “You’re absolutely right! I never thought of that before, but that’s right.”

Ruth Marcus: It’s never a bad idea to serve more food. And so in the middle of any political discussion, if another course is coming or another piece of pie is to be had, you might want to try that.

Research by Courtney Norris.

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