"Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it."
Rumi

© Riccardo Savi, used with permission
Source: © Riccardo Savi, used with permission

I will never forget spending Thanksgiving one year at a friend’s house. Before the meal, she asked each of us at the table to share something for which we were grateful. “I’ll start,” she offered, “I’m grateful to be having Thanksgiving dinner with friends,” she paused, smiling mischievously, “and not family.”   

Many families who are coming together to celebrate this year will be avoiding talking politics. Online advice for having a stress-free family gathering includes finding co-conspirators to help change the subject if the conversation turns to politics, not serving alcohol, and finding ways to disengage.

Sex and relationship expert, Dr. Laura Berman, suggests that even with your best intentions, you might still find yourself unavoidably aggravated by someone. “Sometimes the best thing you can do in these situations,” she offers, is to “remove yourself from the situation if necessary, such as by playing with the kids in the backyard or by helping your grandmother in the kitchen.” She also suggests that you might “remind yourself that nothing you say about politics at your dinner table is going to change anyone’s mind, and that your focus should be on a peaceful, restful day with your family, rather than ‘winning’ an argument with a family member on gun control or voter’s rights. After all, where’s the victory in ruining your mood and your holiday?” 

While all that advice may be just fine to survive the holidays—until the next family gathering (when you’ll need to remind yourself of these strategies, take a deep breath, and do it all over again), the best you can expect is that you survive.

Although the advice is based on intelligence, logic, and common sense, this kind of thinking reveals some hidden, taken for granted assumptions about conversations revolving around politics: 1) they have to be arguments; 2) the goal is to change the other person’s mind; 3) there will be winners and losers; and 4) these conversations will inevitably “ruin your mood and your holiday.” (After all, everybody knows the things you should never talk about at the dinner table are politics, money, and religion.)

© Riccardo Savi, used with permission
Source: © Riccardo Savi, used with permission

But what if there is a possibility different than merely surviving annual family holiday dinners? There is another strategy for dealing with relatives who hold even the most offensive or ridiculous views. But first you need to be honest with yourself: What do you really think about people you are absolutely certain are wrong? I don’t mean when you think, “we just have different perspectives on this…” or, “I can see how you could come to that conclusion…” What I mean is when what you’re saying to yourself is, “He is unbelievably biased,” or “What a totally ridiculous thing to say!” or even better, “What is WRONG with this person? How could someone POSSIBLY believe that?”

Well, what is wrong with them? How could they possibly believe what they say? Taking a page out of Richard Dawkins's book, chances are you’ll come up with one of the following answers:

1) The person is ignorant. (The most charitable and redeemable of our options.) If this person had all the correct information, everything would become clear, and this person would come around. A mere logical fallacy is at work, and all will be well once this person is schooled and informed.

2) The person is stupid. This person is not intellectually capable of properly integrating even the correct information in order to form the right opinion. There is no hope.

3) The person is crazy. Regardless of the information or the intelligence level, this person will never hold a sane view about this matter (and demonstrates some evidence of being crazy on other things, too). No hope for this person either.

4) The person is evil. (The worst option.) Even with all the right information, a sane mind, and a working-order intellect, this person is up to no good. Not only no hope here, it’s a good idea to keep your distance.

If you think about people who fundamentally disagree with you (especially politically), you will likely find them in one (or more) of these categories.

But are these really the only options? One of the things we now know about the way the human mind works is that we are all subject to cognitive biases—systematic errors in the way we make judgments. Among these are the confirmation bias, which serves to make us believe things that confirm what we already think, and be skeptical of things that contradict our views; the projection bias which functions to make us think that most people think the same way we do; and the in-group bias, which helps us bond with people who make us feel like an “us,” and makes us less trusting of people who aren’t part of “us.” Add these to the bandwagon effect, which is when our thinking is unconsciously altered in order to go along with a group (“groupthink”), and we’re off to the races.

Yet we feel very much like we know our minds. “What’s surprising is how easily introspection makes us feel like we know what’s going on in our own heads, even when we don’t,” says Nicholas Epley, author of Mindwise: Why We Misunderstand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want. Identifying why we think what we think, according to Epley, is “nothing but theoretical guesswork.” 

With all this in mind, what if you set aside all your opinions about your disagreeable/obnoxious/offensive relatives this year, and instead of white-knuckling your way through the holiday meal, you decided to be curious about what drives their (ignorant or stupid or crazy or evil) opinions/views/positions?

©HubSpot used with permission
Source: ©HubSpot used with permission

Existential Psychiatrist, Irvin Yalom, claims that there are four “ultimate concerns” that drive human beings: death, isolation, freedom, and meaninglessness. Matters associated with each of these may drive many (if not all) our strongly held views. Every objectionable political opinion, obnoxious viewpoint, and unreasonable criticism may be an attempt to deal with one or more of these existential concerns. Perhaps although we disagree about gun control, or reproductive rights, or the refugee crisis, or our next president, we share deep concerns for our survival, our ability to have some control in our lives, for creating human connection and feeling a sense of belonging, for being free, and for having a meaningful life.

So, what is the strategy for dealing with "those" relatives over the holidays? Check your own opinions at the door, and instead of either retreating or arguing, just listen. William Stringfellow wrote:

"Listening is a rare happening among human beings. You cannot listen to the word another is speaking if you are preoccupied with your appearance or impressing the other, or if you are trying to decide what you are going to say when the other stops talking, or if you are debating about whether the word being spoken is true or relevant or agreeable. Such matter may have their place, but only after listening to the word as the word is being uttered. Listening, in other words, is a primitive act of love..."  

If you're willing to have a new experience of your challenging relatives this holiday season, then ask questions and listen. Listen for their concerns. Listen for what really matters to them. Be curious. You might find you have more in common than you thought. Or if you don’t, at least you might find that disagreement isn’t a recipe for disaster.

Dr. Paresky leads programs for people who interact with constituents and stakeholders with whom there is disagreement. Her workshop, You’re Right. Now What? allows people to uncover their own assumptions, and learn how they can be more effective with those with whom they fundamentally disagree. For more information, contact Pamela@MultiGenConsulting.com

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