How to navigate tough conversations at the holidays

Food, family … and friction. Thanksgiving gatherings can be filled with great joy and connection, but they can also devolve into arguments over the recent midterm elections, the ongoing COVID pandemic or the best way to cook a turkey.

To cope with – and strategize for – potential strife at your Thanksgiving table, PBS NewsHour digital anchor Nicole Ellis spoke with Columbia University psychology professor Peter Coleman to get his best tips for anxious feast-goers.

Watch their conversation in the video player above.

“It’s possible just to start the dinner by saying, ‘I love you all and I’m so glad you’re here and I’m glad we’re connected with each other. And in the past, we’ve gotten into some rough conversations. If possible, let’s agree to respect each other today,’” Coleman said.

Setting up ground rules doesn’t have to be formal, he said, but should be upfront, so that if conversations start going into tense territory, “you can use that as leverage to bring the conversation back in line.”

Coleman also recommends that if you anticipate that a difficult personal topic might be unavoidable – like a breakup, loss of a job or a guest who doesn’t accept an aspect of your life – consider proactively raising the subject in private before you’ve all gathered. That way, he said, issues can be addressed early without others interfering.

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Finally, Coleman suggested starting off the night by acknowledging everyone as loved ones with shared humanity to help create a connection that supersedes politics.

“Setting the table emotionally to have people connect with each other as humans or as family members or friends [can help] before you wander into anything that’s divisive,” he said.

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