The past few weeks, I have gotten several letters asking similar questions, which I could sum up with three larger inquires:
- How can I talk to relatives and friends with whom I do not agree politically?
- How I can be sensitive to people in my life when I am elated/they are depressed (or vice versa?)
- What topics are strictly off-limits, particularly at the holidays?
Sigh. These are hard times, everyone. Of course, you don’t need me to tell you that, it’s obvious. Many people are fearful and grief-stricken. Others feel vindicated and excited. The country is deeply divided, and even if it hasn’t happened, yet, it will be nearly impossible to avoid some amount of angst or awkwardness in our interactions with others.
I don’t have any magic answers. While I know good manners would compel us, at least around the holiday table, to avoid contentious topics, I do think that we need a strategy when faced with discussions that confront or oppose our values.
A therapist taught me years ago that, in communicating with people with whom we have relationships, we typically have three aims in mind:
- To achieve our goal/get our point across
- To protect or enhance the relationship
- To preserve our self-respect/dignity.
The catch? In most conversations, you can’t have all three things.
Example: You drop your child off at his/her grandparents’ house for the afternoon, and ask them not to give your kid too many sweets. They agree. You may even take a moment to negotiate an appropriate amount of sugar (so they can spoil, but your kid doesn’t go bananas), and when you leave, everyone is on board with the plan. You come back to find your child in a Twinkie haze. You have options:
- You might tell them that you will not be able to drop your child off again because you had a specific need, and it was not honored. This would satisfy achieving your goal and preserving your self-respect, but it might damage your relationship.
- You might let it go, laugh it off, and then expect this behavior in the future, too. In this scenario, you protect the relationship, but you might lose some dignity (they promised something, didn’t do it, and then weren’t accountable), and you certainly didn’t get your wishes honored.
See how that works? You can’t have everything, because you are now in a conversation about a thing that already happened, you must react to the actual reality. There is no outcome in which you can have all three objectives met, so you have to be strategic, and decide what is most important, so you can focus your energy in that direction.
Some folks might say that the right answer is always to have your goal met, others will say the relationship is always paramount, and of course, we all know that without self-respect, what do we have? You’ve heard these statements, you’ve probably said them at times. “Awh, come on! Grandparents should be able to spoil their grandchildren as much as they want, why are you so uptight?” or “I will not be disrespected, ever, I don’t care how small the issue is, you will not disrespect me.” or “What can I do? I love her and don’t want to make her mad.”
The truth is that all three of these conversation aims are valuable, and being flexible and strategic—valuing the right stuff at the right time—may lead to the best overall results.
In the above example, if you have a terrific relationship with your parents/in-laws, it would be easier to insist that your child cannot visit if your requests will not be honored, as your relationship has room to take the hit. A strong relationship foundation wouldn’t be broken by this small bump in the road.
If, however, you are seeking to build tighter bonds, particularly with your child and his/her grandparents, having a sense of humor and keeping expectations low might make more sense. This once-in-awhile, no-big-deal spoiling of your kid might not be worth squelching it if it damages your overall trust/relationship.
Finally, if a pattern of behavior has been established that shows you that your requests will not be honored, and you fear for your child’s future well-being (i.e., what happens when the stakes are higher than some extra candy in their system?), you may be wise to throw down the gauntlet.
On any given day, between any given parent and grandparent, this could be a totally different conversation. The critical point: You must have a strategy.
Like I mentioned while speaking with Sharon and Winter on the Hungry Squared podcast, no one goes to dinner expecting to be converted to new religious or political convictions. The dinner table is a great place to discuss what matters to us, though, with the comfort of a communal meal to (hopefully) grease the works and make things less animated.
But what happens when the conversation around the holiday table takes a turn, and big, ugly issues must be confronted? What do you do when your uncle makes a racist joke? When your cousin uses a slur to describe a group of people? When you find yourself strident and yelling about points of fact that others believe only to be points of opinion?
You must have a strategy.
I have a zero-tolerance policy about racist/homophobic/xenophobic/sexist remarks. This is an absolute value for me, a point of human dignity that I feel I must defend, period. That doesn’t mean I scream, yell, and get argumentative. It means that, when I hear something unkind or offensive, I don’t hesitate to say something like, “That comment hurts me because…” It means that I give people the benefit of the doubt—I never assume people mean to be cruel—but I don’t let comments that are hurtful hang in the air without challenge.
I put a lot of work—and a lot of emotional energy—into my family relationships. I try hard to make as many connections with each family member as I can, building on our similar likes/dislikes, our experiences, and always, our senses of humor. Because of this, when I hear someone I love saying something crude or demeaning, I’m not afraid to say something. My relationships can (usually) take it. I hope they feel the same way for me—I want to know when something I’ve said is hurtful.
Several Thanksgivings ago, I had a long discussion with a relative about “those lazy people” who want health care. I doubt it changed his opinion, much, but the way he was speaking didn’t honor the kind and loving person I know him to be. My hope is that, by the end of the conversation, I both enhanced our relationship—by engaging with him thoughtfully, not just yelling or being defensive—and protected my own dignity. I learned from him, too. After our talk, we were hugging and joking with each other.
Recently, at a conference I attended, I confronted a relative stranger at our lunch table about her racist remark. In this scenario, I used questions to diffuse the situation while still making my point. What did she mean when she called a neighborhood “sketchy?” When she went on to say “sketchy” = “she would be the only person of her race there,” I noted that being an absolute minority is not the same as being in danger, then asked her why she thought that was the case. Because I had no real relationship with her, I didn’t have to worry about that dynamic; I could focus entirely on dignity and my point. All the same, I didn’t seek to destroy her dignity, only to confront her statements.
You may find yourself at a Thanksgiving meal with an assortment of relatives and friends you know well, along with others you barely know. Before you go, think through a strategy about what is important to you, and practice being patient and thoughtful in your (potential) responses. Remember that there is no one-size fits all strategy—each situation may require a different approach.
Know your values. Give others the benefit of the doubt. Take a breath (or two) before you talk. Ask questions instead of making harsh statements. Be kind. Don’t gang up on each other. Rely on your sense of humor—laughter can help more situations than we can name. Don’t be afraid of the consequences of difficult discussions, just be prepared.
I wish you peaceful, lively conversation this holiday season.