Tips to make space for civil discourse at your holiday table

Three people sitting at a table having dinner on a deck

The holidays are an opportunity for sharing food and gratitude with loved ones. It can also be a forum for heated discussions, both political and personal. While our holiday gatherings will look different than normal this year, there’s still plenty of room for conversations in small gatherings or over video chat. A 2018 study in Science found that having a Thanksgiving meal with people of differing political view cuts dinner short by half an hour. In other words, people would rather give up pumpkin pie than talk to their relatives about tough topics. So how can we set our tables with the tools to foster civil, informative, and open discussion?

Ahead of the holiday season, the Center for the Science of Moral Understanding at the University of North Carolina hosted a virtual panel to share science-based, field-tested tips for handling challenging conversations with family and friends during the holidays. Moderated by the center’s director, social psychologist Kurt Gray, “Talking Politics Over Turkey” brought together John Sarrouf, a conflict-resolution expert and co-executive director of Essential Partners, Juliana Schroeder, a behavioral scientist and assistant professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and Jay Van Bavel, the director of the NYU Social Perception and Evaluation Lab.

To help navigate difficult conversations this season, Van Bavel, Schroeder, and Sarrouf shared tips for having more empathetic conversations — over pie and beyond.

Talking across the political divide

Fostering respect for those we disagree with is trickier than ever in our highly polarized society. For decades members of both political parties have diverged to the point where “out-party hate is a stronger force than in-party love,” said Van Bavel. His work emphasizes how the coronavirus pandemic has made political divisions even wider, as partisans and politicians clash on the relationship between public health initiatives and individual freedoms.

To help bridge these ever-widening political divides, Schroeder studies interpersonal communication around polarizing subjects. Among her findings: The medium through which we communicate matters. An experiment that she conducted among Berkeley students showed that intonation, pacing, and linguistic cues all led to greater understanding. “We find that the variants in the [linguistic] cues in particular are the things that seem to be conveying the person’s thoughts and feelings the most,” she said.

These cues are present in audio, video, or in-person conversation, but absent in text communication. Schroeder’s study showed that people overwhelmingly prefer to write to each other during hard conversations, missing the opportunity to offer those cues that could smooth communication. “What we’re seeing in the data so far is this preference to keep distant from the other person,” she said. The takeaway? Pull up a chair or Zoom link instead of opting for chat for sensitive discussions.

Practicing constructive conversation

Schroeder also recommends semantic changes, such as modifying word choice and asking open-ended questions. But structure matters too: changing the medium, the number of people, and the audience can help as well. If a conversation with a relative is escalating over email or social media, for example, Schroeder recommends switching to a phone call. “One of the key insights of this work is that [these changes] could matter a lot in terms of the conflict resolution outcomes,” she said.

Sarrouf asks people to think about a heated conversation with a loved one and remember what they felt and thought in that moment. “You can, at any point in the midst of a difficult conversation, change the way you listen, change the way you reflect, change the way you respond, and change the kinds of questions that you ask,” he says. These four elements make up the constructive cycle of conversation. To communicate effectively, we should listen to understand, pause, and breathe as we reflect, speak to be understood rather than to convince, and ask open-ended questions about the other person’s story.

At the Center for the Science of Moral Understanding, a series of studies showed that most Americans believe that using facts and statistics in conversation is the best way to foster mutual respect. In fact, Gray says, data does little to change another person’s opinion: “When one person brings up a set of facts, the other person easily dismisses it as ‘fake news’. Instead, “what fosters respect are narratives of personal experience.” To that end, curiosity may be as important to our holiday gatherings this year as what’s on the table. Ask questions about why people believe what they believe and what’s at stake for them. More than likely, they’ll respond with the same generosity and interest. As Gray puts it, “Curiosity is pretty contagious.”

Click here to watch the full virtual session. Learn more about Prof. Gray and other partners working to discover how people can bridge even the deepest divides at the Charles Koch Foundation’s “Courageous Collaborations” initiative.

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