Talking Tough Turkey: How to Have Difficult Holiday Conversations

Dear Rahuldeep Gill,

I've heard that you speak to audiences about religion, faith, and how to make organizations more collaborative and innovative. I was wondering if you could help me with a domestic issue: how do I talk to my crazy, opinionated uncle Steve about ISIS, the Syrian Refugee Crisis, and other controversial topics this Thanksgiving?

Gravy Lover

Dear Gravy

You sure you want to do this? Remember how last year's "Benghazi" conversation went?


GL: Yeah, but that's because I made a "Fugazi" pun. I know better this year. I'm one year wiser. And plus, we're one year farther away from "Donnie Brasco".

RG: Ok, fine. If you absolutely have to talk about ISIS to crazy uncle Steve here are some tips.

1. Think about who you're talking to. Ask yourself: what do I really want out of this conversation? Out of this relationship?

Keep in mind that you and your conversation partners need to start conversations in situations where there is trust and a shared sense of meaning. If someone starts a conversation out of the blue, can everyone take a step back and think about how difficult it is going to be to continue without that trust and care?

Remember the emotions involved. News like the stuff you want to talk about is deeply, deeply emotional to all kinds of people in all kinds of ways that often sit under the surface.

2. What is the context of the conversation? Remember that tryptophan and alcohol skew our behavior. Is a loud dinner table the best place for this kind of talk?

Few controversial conversations fix problems right then and there in the world, so pick smaller goals: like developing enough trust so that next time the conversation can actually take place, or can go better than it did over turkey.

3. Build common ground. Ask your conversation partners what they really, really value in life that is positive, and show them that the people they disagree with (like you) -- or distrust, or even hate -- might value similar things. Remember to respect the core humanity of people you are conversing with.

I once watched Eboo Patel, one of my common-ground-building heroes, teach a student how to talk to his old-fashioned and slightly bigoted grandfather about his diverse set of friends. "Martin Luther King Jr didn't soften the hearts of old Southern bigots," Eboo said. "His message spoke to their southern daughters, who then changed their fathers' hearts." The people we love and care about love and care about the real stories that shape our lives, and will respond to heartfelt stories much better than they respond to cold and calculated logic.

4. A little discomfort is good for us all. Here I'm not talking about tolerating bigotry, hatred, or general anti-social behavior. I'm just saying that every healthy family, organization, or society is going to have to find ways to tolerate difficult conversations and diversity of viewpoints.

I've had my share of conversations with people I deeply disagree with that have turned into shouting matches with fingers pointed (and given) and doors slammed. It's not easy. It really sucks when it goes wrong. If people cannot respect each others' basic, human goodness then taking a step back and a step out of the conversation is okay.

GL: I think I get it. This is a lot better approach than just not talking about it or by preparing talking points like Seth Meyers says I should (even though Seth Meyers is really funny!).

RG: You're welcome. That's right, if you're going to have these tough conversations, there are complex webs of intricate and often-contradictory facts and opinions you're going to have to navigate. For example, here's what I know about the ISIS stuff. It took me hours, days to sort through facts and I still don't have it all right.

Like working out, tolerating difficult conversations takes a certain muscle. Over time we can develop trust with folks, and maybe even a skill set on how to enter these conversations, how to engage in positive dialogue, and when to leave them.

Remember, it's not the radical anarchists who will have the final word on what we should all put our conversational energies towards, nor is it the hard-hearted haters from the other side. The people who are going to have to decide the quality of our discourse are the rest of us in between. Us regular folk. Hopefully, we can keep Uncle Steve and the rest of us at the table.

And really, being at the table is huge. The world needs more truly "safe" spaces where people aren't alienated and retreat to emotional bunkers that become real world bomb shelters. That might take a while, but it might start at our dinner tables.

Gravy Lover: Thanks, Professor Interfaith Guy! This is very fascinating and helpful. I'll try it out with Uncle Steve, but maybe we'll just watch football and fall sleep on the couch.

RG: You're welcome. Don't forget to bring flowers to Thanksgiving.