Expert Tips for a Drama-Free Holiday -- Even If Your Family Is Politically Divided

Thanksgiving familyYou might be feeling devastated by the results of the election -- or you might be pleased as punch. But either way, it's safe to say that by the time the Thanksgiving holiday rolls around, emotions will still be running high: anger, fear, disbelief, happiness, excitement, all depending on whom you cast your ballot for. But whether you wanted to be #WithHer or to #MakeAmericaGreatAgain, chances are you could be sitting next to that friend or family member on Thanksgiving who feels very, very differently. And you might not know how to deal with it. 

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In the interests of celebrating this holiday and being able to have conversations that don't end in slammed doors and tossed sweet potato casseroles, we chatted with Alexandra Carter, the director of the Edson Queiroz Foundation Mediation Program and a clinical professor of law at Columbia Law School. Carter has trained everyone from UN delegates to judges on the art of mediation, so if there's one person bound to be able to teach you the art of diplomacy at the family table, it's probably her.

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"The work that I do is designed to help people no matter what the difficult topic at hand," says Carter. "These skills work with diplomats, law firms, Fortune-100 CEOS, 8-year-old girls -- and they will work on your Uncle Carl." Here are five tips she suggests for a peaceful holiday:

1. Each family must decide: Politics? Or no politics?
This won't be the same for each family, so you'll have to decide what works best for yours. "We've made a no-politics rule at our Thanksgiving this year," says Carter. "We've decided that for my family, the thing that works best is to focus on the things we love, like eating and college football. But other families will need to talk about it, and that's fine, too." 

2. Practice active listening.
"Listening does not mean just shutting up and giving the person your attention. Often when people [who disagree politically] are in these conversations, people stop listening to each other; we prefer to listen in a bubble," says Carter. "I teach active listening, without interruption. After you've done that, you can start to ask questions. 'Tell me more when you say you feel left behind.' 'When you say you can't trust Hillary, what concerns you most?' The number one way to take the steam off the kettle is to listen actively. And do it before the other person does it to you. If they perceive that you are genuinely open, they may reach a place where they are willing to try to understand you more." 

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3. Remember that each conversation really contains three levels.
And try to have empathy for the emotion behind someone's political mindset. "The first level is what's happening -- the facts of how one person feels. For instance, Uncle Carl thinks immigrants are taking his job. Now let's get to level two, the feelings beneath what makes Uncle Carl feel left behind," explains Carter. "Finally, the deepest level is the identity conversation, where you ask yourself, 'What does this mean about who I am and why we're having this conversation. Am I as tolerant as I think I am?'" 

4. Ask, don't attack. 
"The first thing is, for the person experiencing the disconnect, to take it back and realize that different people react to stuff differently. Rather than say, 'How could you?', ask questions. Not cross-examination questions. Be genuinely curious. And if you're feeling angry, pretend that your friend or family member is a character in a story you're trying to understand. Show them that you are making an attempt to understand, and from there, you can get into your different reaction. The friend will be in more of a place to hear it, having been deeply understood."

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5. Frame the situation.  
That is, try to find the similarity when the difference feels like an insurmountable gulf. "Say something like, 'You and I have the best interests of the country at heart,'" suggests Carter. "'We both care deeply about issues that are very passionate to us. We have a few things we can disagree with, but more that we can agree on.' Sometimes people think there is a chasm because of one big issue, but we may hold very similar beliefs. We can still love each other."

 
 
Image via iStock.com/Pamela Moore
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