Try this mindful, activist approach to handling a hostile conversation on Thanksgiving
Holiday celebrations have never been totally carefree, good-vibes-only family affairs. But in divided political times, that’s especially true. We’ve seen the rise of an administration and ruling political party that’s increasingly and demonstrably hostile to women, people of color, the LGBTQ community, and democratic institutions more broadly—and with this troubling political wave has come the unmasking of segments of the American population that not only condone but openly embrace dangerous, hateful ideologies. It’s often at large holiday gatherings that we’re suddenly confronted with the gut-wrenching reality that such people exist in our own communities and families.
Research shows Americans spent 74 million fewer hours with friends and family on Thanksgiving after the 2016 election due to political tensions, and about six in 10 Americans dread talking politics at the turkey feast. In short, we’re all avoiding these conversations—but what do you do if you find yourself confronting one?
Much has been written about how to handle these conversations when they inevitably arise. Columnists have suggested everything from sticking to the facts (better do some memorizing before the big party and hope it all stays with you after a few glasses of wine), to going all-in with your “Nasty Woman” tees (we can’t compromise on our values when lives are at stake—though, at the same time, it’s debatable whether this strategy helps the causes we care about), to “maintaining civility” (roughly translated as “Can you please not scream as you beg for your freedom and safety? Thanks!”), to avoiding it all completely by changing the topic (must be nice to have the luxury to never have to figure out how to break bread with people who believe your fundamental rights should be taken away).
I spoke with various psychologists and justice advocates—people who specialize in interpersonal communication strategies—and they all had vastly different perspectives on what to do in these situations. You will, too.
For me, I care about unflinchingly standing up for human rights and marginalized communities. I also care about progress, kindness, and your mental health and well-being during and after these potentially hostile conversations. Based on these values and on my conversations with a handful of experts, here’s a guide to a mindfulness-based, activist approach to navigating heated conversations on Thanksgiving.
1Set your intentions in advance.
Before you head over to the big family party, spend some time reflecting on your values. Remind yourself why it’s so important to stand up for your beliefs and for this country’s most vulnerable communities.
“If you are genuinely committed to dismantling racist patriarchy, then you will call folks out, even your next of kin, however and whenever necessary,” Rachel Ricketts, a racial justice advocate and intersectional spirituality coach, told HG via email.
“Set boundaries for yourself—emotionally, mentally, spiritually, verbally, and physically. Get clear on your deal-breakers and let anyone and everyone who needs to know in on what they are prior to the day. This helps you know when you need to call yourself into action and how,” she added. “I also suggest mindful tactics to protect your energy before hitting up the fam jam, such as partaking in a culturally sensitive form of meditation, breath work, and/or visualizing yourself protected by a healing cloak of white light that serves as a buffer between you and unwanted energy.”
2Listen to what they’re saying—really listen.
When people get into arguments or conflicts of any kind, they often fall into the trap of only listening so they can prepare their response, rather than listening to actually absorb the message the other person is trying to convey.
“If you really get under the hood with how we listen, we’re listening for ‘Do I agree? Are we on the same page?’” explained Dr. Danielle Dowling, a psychologist and life coach. She recommended ditching this mindset in favor of an active listening approach: momentarily drop your internal dialogue and simply focus on understanding the perspective being laid on the table in front of you.
“Can you listen for values?” she asked. Which brings us to…
3Engage from a values perspective.
When we look at specific issues, it can be easy to get swept up describing policy stances and framing arguments the same way we do among our own like-minded peers. But our circles are echo chambers, and the language used within them doesn’t actually resonate with the language used by people outside them. (For example, abortion advocates use language about “bodily autonomy” while abortion opponents use language about “protecting the unborn”; these sides are not even speaking the same language when they articulate their views.)
Pull out and attempt to engage on the basis of values: What do you each care about? Human rights? Protecting lives? Have a conversation about what actually furthers the values you agree on.
“Sometimes we have similar values as others but are trying to have them met differently based on the issue, so we’re just talking past one another,” Ricketts explained. “This isn’t easy, and certainly not always warranted, but if you’re in the mood to really try with someone, it’s worth a shot.”
4Honor your emotions.
When the conversation gets heated—or if somebody airs radical or flagrantly harmful ideologies—lean into your emotional response.
“People are literally dying, every single day, as a result of systemic and institutionalized racism and capitalist patriarchy, so it is important that we honor the full spectrum of emotions we rightfully have in response to these inequities,” Ricketts said. “Acknowledge and embrace your anger. It is there for good reason, and you have every right to it. Being angry or frustrated doesn’t mean you need to abuse others—you can channel those emotions in a productive way by identifying how you feel to yourself and/or others.”
She reiterated that, at the end of the day, it’s not on you to package the truth about injustice and inequality in a way that’s acceptable or palatable to others. The truth is the truth.
5Use your breath.
Feeling overwhelmed? Take three big breaths, Dr. Dowling recommended, and step away if you need to take care of yourself. She called breath the “original Xanax.”
“It’s the body’s built-in anti-anxiety medication,” she explained. “It just calms the whole parasympathetic nervous system down…the heart racing, the blood pressure, the headache.”
6Follow up one-on-one.
You should speak up as soon as an offensive comment is made, even if at the dinner table surrounded by the entire family. That said, don’t kick yourself if you end up choking in the moment—just be sure to say something later. Dr. Dowling said it might even be more effective to speak individually with the offending relative.
“People tend to respond to personal feedback better individually than when addressed in a group because when it’s addressed in a group, like at a table, they can go into defense mode, and it can quickly spiral out of control,” she said. “So if it is possible—there’s a natural break, or someone gets up—pull that person to the side. Because they’re just going to be much more open-hearted and open-minded to what you have to say.”
With that in mind, consider having that one-on-one conversation no matter what happens at dinner.
7Recognize when enough is enough.
“If you have a relative who refuses to stop making harmful statements or airing oppressive beliefs after you’ve made it clear that they are unacceptable to you, then I suggest stepping back from the relationship entirely and letting your friends or family members know why,” Ricketts said. “Ask those people to support your decision and let them know you will not attend gatherings/events if that person is there.”
“People of color have to risk our lives and livelihoods every single day for merely existing, she continued. “For those who have the luxury of choice, I implore you to stick to your guns on your social justice values and be willing to let go of the people, places, and things that do not align. Sharing a bloodline is no excuse for tolerating bullshit, and doing so in order to ‘keep the peace’ just keeps racist patriarchy in place. Be unapologetic about your values, who you are, and what you hold dear. Release that which doesn't serve. In doing so, you create space for all that does. It's not easy, but it is necessary.
8Allow yourself time to release the energy afterwards.
“This could be a mindful washing of my hands and forearms envisioning the energy being rinsed down the sink; a few deep, cleansing exhales; and/or body movement such as dancing, running on the spot, or punching the air,” Ricketts recommended.
Give yourself a little self-care. You did it—you stood up and fought. Now, cleanse and rest.