As Americans gather around the table for Thanksgiving, we need to engage in polite and productive conversations with our relatives and friends.
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Ideas
November 24, 2021 11:00 AM EST
Mehl is the Executive Director and Co-Founder of OpenMind.
Jonathan Haidt is a social psychologist at New York University’s Stern School of Business. He is the author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.

As Americans prepare to host Thanksgiving dinners and other holiday meals, much attention is paid to the food served, the table setting, and the guest list. But is anyone setting the table for a good conversation? This year, you can.

If you had the choice, which of these two menus would you rather serve:

Menu A: Fight for truth and virtue

  • Appetizer: Identify people with bad beliefs
  • Main course: Prove those people wrong
  • Dessert: Change their thinking so that they share your good beliefs

Menu B: Have fun

  • Appetizer: Improve relationships among everyone around the table
  • Main course: Make the meal enjoyable and memorable
  • Dessert: Make yourself smarter

If you’d prefer to serve Menu A, you can stop reading now, although we should note that nobody has ever served this menu and made it to dessert. But if you’d like to try Menu B, please keep reading. As co-founders of a non-profit organization dedicated to helping Americans bridge divides, we’ve been developing recipes for Menu B ever since the 2016 election, when it seemed that America could not get any more divided. Well, guess what? A recent survey by researchers at the University of Virginia found that 52% of Trump voters and 41% of Biden voters said that they would “favor [Blue/Red] states seceding from the union to form their own separate country.” Yes, they literally backed secession.

We were so alarmed by what we saw in 2016 that we created OpenMind, a psychology-based educational tool that helps people communicate constructively across differences. Since then, OpenMind has been used by more than 50,000 Americans in classrooms, workplaces, and communities across the country. Research shows that our tools cause a reduction in animosity, thereby improving conversations.

To prepare for yet another holiday season in our divided country, we’ve distilled insights from behavioral science and conflict resolution to help you navigate challenging conversations. While you might want to avoid talking about abortion or the latest political conspiracy theory at the table, you should not have to avoid politics and controversy altogether.

Preparation: Take winning off the table

As any good host knows, preparing a memorable meal begins with how you set the table. Your arrangement of the centerpiece, table toppers, and place settings all contribute to the ambiance of the dinner and set it apart from ordinary meals.

If you wanted to serve Menu A, you could put a scoreboard in the center of the table so that guests could keep track of who delivered the best zingers throughout the meal. But if you want to serve Menu B, you need to take winning off the table. When we focus on winning an argument, we lose sight of the larger picture. As Ben Franklin noted, “If you argue and rankle and contradict, you may achieve a temporary victory – sometimes; but it will be an empty victory because you will never get your opponent’s good will.” Once you let go of winning, you’ll find that the stress of a disagreement melts away. You can shift your goal for the conversation from winning to understanding.

As you sit down to start the meal, take a moment to establish a collaborative goal for the conversation. A collaborative goal is one that both parties would be happy to sign up for. Your goal might be to better understand one another or to strengthen relationships all around.

If a difficult topic arises and you’re unable to identify a collaborative goal, it’s best to redirect the conversation. Try saying something like, “I’m not sure if I’m up for this conversation right now. Maybe we could come back to it another time soon?” Over the course of the conversation, remember that you always have this exit option. Likewise, if your relative is not up for discussing a topic, don’t push it. For a conversation to be successful, both parties need to participate willingly.

If you are able to establish a collaborative goal, it should become your centerpiece for the remainder of the discussion. Before each time you speak, remind yourself of your goal and intentionally make choices that advance the conversation in pursuit of your objective.

Appetizer: Get curious

Now that your mental table is properly set, you’re ready to respond if a difficult topic arises. The best way to begin a difficult conversation is to get curious about what’s driving other people’s views. This is not the time to make judgments; it’s the time to ask more questions in order to identify the values and life experiences behind those views. Focus on letting them tell their stories, and make sure they feel heard. Asking questions with sincere interest demonstrates respect and signals to others that it’s safe to lower their defenses. Patience at this early stage usually pays off because by taking the time to listen to them, they will be more likely to reciprocate by hearing you out.

Main course: Tell a personal story

Once you’ve learned about the other person’s perspective, you’re ready to share your own view. The way you approach this is critical. When we encounter a view we disagree with, a common impulse is to attack head on with facts. But research shows that directly challenging people’s convictions often backfires. Our deeply held beliefs are usually wrapped up with our core identities, and when our identities are challenged, people feel threatened and become resistant, or even hostile.

If facts alone won’t work, what will? The most effective way for you to be heard is by telling a personal story. Sharing stories can trigger empathy in your listener. By appealing to the other person’s emotions and intuitions, that person is more likely to resonate with you. While they may not agree with you, they’ll be more likely to listen to you and acknowledge that your views have at least some validity.

Dessert: Propose a “learning trade”

For the final course, you’ll want your guests to leave with a sweet taste in their mouths. If there was anyone you had a clear disagreement with, ask that person to share a book or reading that influenced their perspective. Take the time to read what they share and follow up by telling them at least one thing you learned. Chances are they’ll be flattered, and they might even reciprocate. Those readings are unlikely to change your mind, but they’ll make you smarter and more skillful the next time you engage with that person, or with anyone who holds those beliefs.

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