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At the Holiday Table: Conversational Tips, Tricks and Tools to Bring to Dinner

Imagine a holiday dinner where every conversation, no matter how challenging, ends with a smile and a sense of understanding. This might seem like a lofty dream, but here at Move for America, we believe this reality is worth striving for, one conversation at a time! Would you like to be a part of the change? 


During the holidays, the dinner table often becomes more than just a place to share a meal; a stage for dialogues that can strengthen bonds or test them as family and friends come together. These gatherings, ideally filled with warmth and unity, can sometimes veer into territories of disagreement and discomfort. However, we hold a steadfast belief that these interactions can blossom into opportunities for fostering respect, building understanding and finding common ground. So as the frosty Minneapolis mornings and bustling Christmas markets remind us that the season is in full swing and the time for feasting fast approaches, let us be your guide to navigating dinner table conversations with empathy and respect, no matter how wholesome or harrowing they may be. 


How to Use These Tips


Contrary to popular belief, discussing politics at the dinner table can be inclusive and enriching. The following tips will help you create that positive experience that deepens connection and understanding.. However, it's crucial to acknowledge that you get to set your own boundaries. If a discussion is causing you or others harm, you may respectfully end the conversation. More tips on that below! But when we listen deeply and seek to understand – not persuade – we often find we have more common ground than we knew. May these tools help you discover that common ground and better your holiday celebrations, whatever that means for you!


Embrace Active Listening


At the heart of every meaningful conversation lies a balance between speaking and listening. While speaking often comes naturally, listening requires more effort and intention, especially in emotionally charged discussions. This is where active listening, a skill vital for effective communication, is essential.


Active Listening Steps—A Quick Breakdown


  • Focused Attention: Truly listen to the speaker without multitasking. Give them your full attention to understand their perspective.

  • Paraphrasing: After they speak, paraphrase what they’ve said. Use phrases like “So I’m hearing that…” or “It sounds like you’re saying…” This shows you’re engaged and seeking clarity. It also keeps you from making assumptions or misinterpreting.

  • Questioning: Ask clarifying questions. This helps delve deeper into the conversation, revealing the underlying reasons for their opinions or feelings.

  • Summarizing: At appropriate intervals, summarize the conversation. This ensures mutual understanding and keeps track of the discussion's progression.


Navigating the Conversation


Creating a space for dialogue where everyone has a chance to express themselves is essential in group settings. If someone dominates the conversation or it becomes one-sided, gently introducing the concept of active listening can be beneficial. Take care to allow all to speak, but also be sure to pay attention to your own needs.


Impact 


Active listening dramatically improves conversations. It creates a safe environment where everyone feels heard and validated, reduces judgment, and clarifies assumptions. This opens communication, allowing for genuine understanding and respect for every voice.


Approach with Curiosity

 

We as people are driven by twin flames, logic and emotion. Nothing that we do cannot be mapped to one of these forces. This means that nobody makes an action or holds an opinion without a reason—which can be hard to remember when someone’s saying something diametrically opposed to a deeply and dearly held belief—particularly when it’s someone close to us. Remembering this important fact, however, and trying to understand just what that reason is, can add complexity to the way we view a conversation and the perspectives of those involved. 


Exploring The Why


When a disagreement starts to surface, pause to consider: do you truly understand why the other person holds their stance? If you don’t, check in with yourself and see if you feel comfortable asking. Knowing this information might help you decide how to proceed, whether that be in the form of finding a new way to share your perspective, listening to deepen your understanding, or steering the conversation towards more neutral ground.


Why does “Why” Matter?


Understanding the reasons behind people's thoughts and actions helps ground your approach during a disagreement. It's common to view conflicts in black-and-white terms, creating an 'us vs them' dynamic. However, situations are rarely that simple; there's usually underlying nuance. Many viewpoints stem from a complex mix of influences, and the results of Move for America’s Fellowship workshops show that open-mindedness and clear thinking can create space for understanding and communication when this is recognized. By seeing people as more than just their expressed positions and allowing them to fully articulate their views, we can engage more effectively with the real issues. This approach not only fosters mutual respect but also lays the groundwork for easier and more constructive future conversations.


In seeking common ground, this skill can also be helpful! Common ground is often built by discovering something shared, be it agreement over a basic idea, an emotion about a situation, or a fear, need or question, so figuring out the “why” behind actions can give some wonderful clues and starting places in finding those mutual touchpoints.


Seek Understanding, Not Persuasion


The previous tips have given you the foundational basis for getting to know those around you—hearing them out and asking questions. Now, consider going into conversations with the goal of seeking a deeper understanding, rather than persuading someone of your view. Aiming to learn, rather than defend or prove a point, decreases conflict and opens a space for free sharing without fear of judgment or dismissal as people are less likely to feel guarded or defensive. It’s a mindset that not only enriches our own perspectives, but also fosters deeper connections and empathy.


Understanding Defined


In conversation, understanding means recognizing someone's viewpoint as a reflection of their experiences and values, not just a stance to agree or disagree with. It's seeing the validity in their thoughts and feelings, which fosters a respectful environment where everyone feels genuinely valued.

Integrating active listening into this framework, we focus on really hearing what others are saying, delving into their motivations and the emotions behind their words. Curiosity then becomes a tool for exploration, guiding us to ask questions that deepen our understanding of their perspectives, rather than challenging their views outright.


The Key to Understanding


Acknowledging and respecting differences is essential. By understanding that diverse opinions are a natural part of human interaction, we can appreciate the richness they bring to our relationships. Embracing this diversity of thought, rather than trying to align it with our own, creates a more open, empathetic exchange.


Exiting The Conversation Where Necessary

 

Sometimes, as mentioned earlier, it may not be possible to have the sorts of discussion encouraged here. You may feel the need to find a graceful exit for yourself or redirect away from a topic, and that’s perfectly alright.

 

This is true no matter what conversational technique you’re engaging in. Active listening, for example, never equates to obligation. Sometimes, we lack the bandwidth, or someone's words are hurtful. It’s also worth noting that recognizing the nuances behind varied points of view does not in any way excuse systemic oppressions such as hate, bigotry and violence, nor does it justify any form of harm, intended or otherwise. Navigating this can be challenging, particularly when faced with a stance that seems to perpetuate harm. Remember that It’s always ok to disengage, speak up for yourself or change the topic, no matter what’s happening in the moment. Take care of yourself!

 

Suggested Exiting Phrases 

 

 

• "Let’s change the topic. Tell me, how is your garden (or other hobby)?"

• "This is a heated conversation. Our relationship is more important to me."

• "I feel bad when we argue. Let’s stop for now."

• "I’m sorry we argued. I care about you."

• "Our relationship will always be more important to me than our differences."

  

Further Resources


If the tips listed thus far have made you curious or you feel like you’d like to know more, Living Room Conversations has a staggering collection of printable resources, question lists and other tools for having depthful discussions wherever you are and whoever you’re with. We also highly recommend the holiday tips from Braver Angels,  which go into detail about the various roles family members can take on during politically oriented arguments and ways to engage peacefully and productively within those archetypes. Check out both pages for some extra hints, new ideas and practical suggestions.


Wrapping Up


We hope that this list of concepts and techniques has given you thoughts to mull over, and that some of it has resonated with you and your life. This time of year can be hectic, and the dinner table is no exception. Whether through this post or otherwise, our wish is this: may you find whatever table you sit at, no matter the size, to be a safe and enjoyable place where you feel seen, heard and accepted. And if you decide that the table is a good place to explore differences, may it go smoothly for everyone. Happy holidays to all our readers, and we look forward to being with you again in the new year. 


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