I really enjoy discussing and debating politics and public policy. I grew up in a political household – my Dad was a former Minnesota state legislator – and our dinner table conversations often revolved around political issues and how to help others (the noblest calling of politics, in my opinion). I am also neither shy nor introverted.
I share this as I will be studiously avoiding discussing impeachment or any other political topic at Thanksgiving this week.
Why? One, my wife asked me to avoid these topics (and she has a lot of leverage here). Two, our gathering will include a politically diverse group of family members whom I don’t know well. Three, it’s increasingly challenging in today’s extremely polarized political environment to discuss these issues in a calm and reasoned fashion (and it’s really hard when you can’t even agree on the facts.) And four, you might be able to keep an even keel – but you can’t control how others might react or interact.
The issue then becomes – and this applies in almost all negotiation environments – how do you a) avoid addressing a topic or issue, and b) defuse a volatile issue if it arises despite your best efforts?
Here is some advice, much of it derived from an excellent article in last week’s New York Times entitled “How to Defuse Tension at the Dinner Table During the Holidays.”
1. Create a Game Plan To Avoid Hot-Button Issues.
My wife smartly suggested that everyone avoid discussing certain topics that she knew had the potential to cause stress and tension. And she didn’t just discuss this with me. She also raised this with our hosts, who have not previously hosted Thanksgiving. Our hosts know everyone attending well, including those who have not joined us for previous Thanksgivings. Due to this planning, I expect we will all be on the same page regarding what not to discuss.
2. Prepare Deflecting Phrases to Use.
Think about a few phrases to use if someone raises an insensitive topic or makes an inflammatory comment. “That sounds like a topic we should discuss another day,” or “I feel like we might want to avoid discussing that today,” or “Thanks for your thoughts on that. I totally understand how you may feel this way.” Even consider rehearsing these phrases in advance. Then have another subject – already prepared – to raise and discuss. For more specific ways to avoid answering questions, see my column entitled “Avoiding Tough Questions.“
3. Redirect with Small Talk and Rapport-Building.
Don’t underestimate the power of small talk, rapport-building and asking your counterpart questions about themselves as ways to redirect. Even consider doing some social media homework to prepare. Check out others’ Facebook pages and LinkedIn profiles. Find common interests like sports, hobbies or kids. Safe topics like these may play a calming role.
4. Take a Breath – or 100.
Thomas Jefferson said “When angry, count ten before you speak; if very angry, a hundred.” Of course, easier said than done. Communications expert Holly Weeks in the Harvard Business School article “Taking the Stress Out of Stressful Conversations,” recommends a mindfulness technique where you focus away from your negative thoughts by taking deep breaths and counting fingers.
5. Keep Your Goal in Mind.
I was once at a party where an older gentleman made a racist comment that especially incensed me as our young kids heard him. Fearing that our kids might perceive this as acceptable, I immediately engaged – which led to a very uncomfortable environment for everyone. In retrospect, I should have handled this differently. I was never going to change this person’s beliefs. Nor was that my goal. My goal was to help our kids understand the unacceptable nature of the comment. I should have pulled our kids aside, later, and used this as a teachable moment.
Latz’s Lesson: Thanksgiving should be a time for giving thanks. Planning to avoid possible stressful situations will help achieve this.
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