With an ongoing impeachment inquiry and the 2020 elections right around the corner, there's plenty to talk about — and argue about — over the Thanksgiving table this year. So, we thought we'd ask M.J. Bauer for tips on surviving your family gathering with grace. She's the executive director of the Conflict Resolution Center in Minneapolis and joined All Things Considered host Tom Crann.
The following Q&A has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What should people be thinking about before gatherings where there might be conflict?
The first thing that I would suggest is redefine success. Think about what it is that, for you, will make for a successful Thanksgiving. So that might be that you really want everybody to leave having had a good time. Then you define success as that and you decide what you're willing to give up in order to get that success. So you may not be able to make every political point that you want to make, but you will get to what you define as success for the day.
Is it OK to set ground rules?
I think it's OK to do that in a in a friendly and and and caring way.
The other thing I would say is personally prepare for the day. Think about the questions that you think others may ask you that have been triggers for you in the past and give some thought to your response so you’re not caught off guard.
You can think of the more superficial and maybe funnier response. '“No, I'm not currently dating anyone. I just haven't found anyone as wonderful as grandpa.” And then redirect and change the subject. Say, “But I am really excited about this new volunteer work that I'm doing and it's consuming a lot of my time.”
The other thing you can do is take an authentic approach. “I'm sad, too. I'd like to be with somebody, but that's not going on right now. So what I am doing as I'm planning this fabulous trip to Vietnam. Have you been there?”
Lets say you prepare but you still get into an argument. What's going on in our heads when that happens?
There's a portion of your brain called your amygdala, and your amygdala gets hijacked. And that's a fancy way for saying your body gets flooded with a chemical called cortisol. When that happens, people just aren't thinking clearly. So if you're getting triggered, you do want to find a way to either change the subject or get away from that conflict. But when you get to that point, know that it takes about 10 seconds for that chemical to flood your brain and takes about three hours for it to go away. So when you get triggered, you just need to practice some good self care because you're not going to be at your best.
How do you push the pause button if a conversation is at risk of triggering you?
Deep breathing really helps — get all that good oxygen coming into your body. It does really bring down your blood pressure and it allows you to think more clearly.
The other thing we will say is just name it. Say, “I'm really upset right now. I'm probably not at my best, and I'm thinking maybe it would be good if we get off this topic,” and own it. Humility is a really underrated characteristic.
You can also look for the common value. So as an example, a family member might be talking about their position on guns in schools. You could listen to that and say, “So it sounds to me like safety in schools really matters to you.” So you're not agreeing with their position. You're not disagreeing with their position. You're just finding the common value.
Let's say things do go poorly and then we have to all get together again in December. What can you do?
We have a technique that we call “I” statements. It's four simple steps: How do you feel, in response to what situation, why, and what do you need?
So I have an argument with my brother-in-law. I would call him on the phone and I would say, “I feel really bad that we got into an argument at at dinner on Thanksgiving. And I do that when you and I disagree. And I feel bad because my relationship with you is really important, and I want to set a good example for my kids. So what I really need is for you and I to come up with a plan for how we can have respectful conversations when we're together as family.”
Conflict is normal and it happens in any relationship. And you only get into an argument with people you care about.
Hear the conversation by clicking play on the audio player above.