Come holiday season, we often brace ourselves as we prepare to step outside of our bubbles and break bread with friends and relatives whose beliefs we find… problematic. This year, we’re seeing this as an opportunity to engage in and model productive dialogue.
Doing this with loved ones can be even harder than doing it with the rest of the world. So, we can think of it as training. We're not going to bite our tongues just for the sake of keeping things even-Steven at the dinner table.
If you want to give this a try, we’ve got a few tactics we rely on when we facilitate our workshops. These Guiding Principles help in everyday conversations, too.
And we’re not the only ones who have this on our minds this week. So we’re also providing you with a few resources we’ve come across from some of the writers and organizations we continue to learn from.
We hope this helps and feel free to leave a comment if you think we’ve left anything out!
OUR GUIDING PRINCIPLES
Try to avoid the term “racist.”
Or “sexist,” “homophobe,” etc. This is a hard one because one of these might be the exact term to describe whatever comments you’re hearing from your aunt’s new boyfriend (We even have a film with “Racist” in the title!). And these may be so offensive that the only thing you can do is declare, “That’s racist!” And then walk away. BUT… If you’re hoping to make some headway with a family member you really care about, that’s going to stop the conversation. You may feel some temporary self-satisfaction at calling that person out, but it’s not very effective. Instead, try this…
Put the responsibility on the other person to explain or justify what they've said. This works especially well when someone makes generalizations or stereotypes. These will usually fall apart with just a few critical questions like:
“What makes you say that?”
“When you say, ‘they all…’, who is ‘they’?”
“What in your experience has given you that opinion?”
“Can you tell me a little more about why you said that?”
And if you can muster all your energy to ask these questions with a tone of curiosity, instead of judgment or disgust, they will work that much better. Look, we didn’t say this would be easy!
Don’t try to win an argument.
If, at Thanksgiving dinner, your Uncle Bob has just declared that all men are under attack in the workplace in the midst of all these sexual harassment and assault allegations in the news, you’re probably not going to convince him otherwise that particular evening. Nor will you be able to teach him about the history and continued prevalence of sexism, misogyny, and toxic masculinity. So, again, if your intention is to be effective, then start out slowly. Meet him where he is. And ask questions.
When I hear comments like that, I usually try something like, “Interesting (it works to say something validating first!). I’ve heard that perspective, but I don’t quite understand why men would feel that way. Can you help me understand your point?”
Then, “Ok, thanks for that. I have a different take on it. Are you open to hearing an alternative perspective?”
If he says, “Sure,” then you get a turn!
If he says, “No.” Well, then, don’t waste your breath and go pour yourself another glass of wine or have a second helping of pie. You’ll have earned it – you didn’t let the offensive comments go unchecked and you maintained your sanity.
Here’s one other thing I make sure to do in these instances: If my kids have had to hear anything ignorant or offensive, I take some time to have a longer conversation with them.
Repeat the other person’s point.
If you do find yourself engaged in a heated discussion or full-blown argument, you’ll probably feel like the other person isn’t really hearing you (they’ll feel the same way about you, by the way). As a last-ditch effort, try stating the other person’s point in your own words: “Ok, I want to make sure I understand your point. I think what you’re saying is…” Give them time to clarify. Then ask them if they can do the same for you. You will likely both still disagree with one another in that moment, but there’s always a chance that later, when they are on their own and not trying to double down or save face in front of other people (in other words, protecting their ego), you may have planted a seed in their minds.
OK, that’s it – these are the four principles we try to rely on when trying to have productive conversations. Now here are some other resources we’ve found to be really helpful…
Should You Even Speak Up At All?
“When a tough topic comes up around a table of friends and family, it’s all too easy to take a deep breath and hold it in. Instead of staring down a contentious cousin, it might feel safer to stare at your phone, just to avoid that political debate you’re dreading. But civility and conversation can lead to better relationships, greater creativity and boost the economy.”
Our friends at Border Crossers put together this list of books, lessons, videos, and more. Incredible resource for educators and parents who are ready to rear children through a justice lens.
Know Your History
This came our way from our friend – author-speaker-activist Dr. Eddie Moore, Jr. From the piece:
“Not to rain on our Thanksgiving Day parade, but the story of the first Thanksgiving, as most Americans have been taught it, is not exactly accurate.”
This doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a good meal, practice gratitude, and spend time with loved ones. But don’t you want to know the real history?
This article from columnist Sharon Salzberg, an author and meditation teacher, will help you find some calm and grounding as you engage in discussions.
A Little Humor Helps
Because we have to have a laugh sometimes.