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Thanksgiving Dinner: How to Maintain Closeness in a Politically Divided Family

11/19/2012 01:35 pm ET | Updated Jan 19, 2013
Flickr: Martin Cathrae

Family members all over America will come together to give thanks, and to celebrate -- or, will they? Having just passed through a contentious presidential election, numerous families -- like mine -- are politically divided; feeling either exuberant or absolutely dejected. Whichever they feel, their emotions are riding high.

Imagine it. The table is set, candles lit, heavenly fragrance from the kitchen wafts through the house, portending a wonderful family meal.

Of course it's wonderful to be together again, see how the children have grown, and compare notes on each others' progress. But underlying it all are thoughts of the election results.

In my wonderfully large, lively, mostly Republican family of Catholics, Baptists, a Muslim, two Hindus and some from other denominations as well, I'm pretty much in the minority, having voted for President Obama, and I know that despite Southern gentility, emotions may be raw.

My Republican family members are tremendously disappointed and, probably, still in shock. Some of the men are in near-panic over tremendous social change they see resulting from the election, and nearly all of them are disgusted by the results -- by the performance of their Party and Governor Romney.

I'm hoping that, with skill and loving consideration, your family and mine can all navigate our way through the inevitable discussion we will eventually have, so that at the end of the day we will still feel the love and closeness we so treasure.

I spoke with Craig E. Runde, founding director of Eckerd College's Center for Conflict Dynamics, co-author with Tim Flanagan of Developing Your Conflict Competence: A Hands-On Guide for Leaders, Managers, Facilitators, and Teams (Wiley, 2010). Runde says conflict can be destructive or constructive. Ideally, our family would pursue the constructive type, which includes the ability to empathize and understand the perspectives of others.

Runde says that, in family situations, three techniques can help move the conversation along, keeping it reasonably conflict-free:

Try not to take things personally -- find out what the other person means before jumping to a conclusion.

I'll avoid name-calling, labels and adjectives in the conversation, discouraging that in others, and focus on issues. I'll look for positive points of commonality, and praise positive changes I notice in Republican leadership, such as the cooperative attitude I see in varying degrees among all the leaders, as they begin discussions regarding the fiscal cliff.

Cool down and slow down -- if you start feeling upset take a break and give yourself a chance to relax before responding. 

I can get up for another serving of some of the delicious food (no hardship there!), collecting myself before resuming the conversation. That will give me a chance to try and think of a way to move the conversation back to neutral ground.

Take time to understand the other person's position -- misunderstandings are at the heart of lots of conflicts and they can be resolved by listening carefully to the other person.

Runde says there are two types of listening -- listening for understanding, and listening to respond. Instead of just waiting for the other person to finish so that we can refute their points, we should listen carefully, to thoroughly understand how the problem looks from the other person's point of view.

Whether other family members are combative or peaceful in their discussions with me, after talking with Runde, I'm pretty sure I'll know how to help keep our family boat steady as we move through the often tumultuous waters of political discussion so that, by the time dessert and coffee are finished and the dishes cleared away, we'll all be ready for some lighthearted singing around the piano, my brother Chris playing our old family favorites, and watching the children entertain in their own ways.

Then, at the end of the evening when we all go our separate ways, because of our careful, considerate discourse, we can part in the warm glow of knowing that, although some things around us may change, our family love is stronger than ever. Some wonderful things can always stay the same, and that's a comfort.

I'm anticipating that we will succeed, and that you can too. Here's to a wonderful family Thanksgiving celebration with a renewed feeling of closeness and optimism because we will have proved that, with attitudes such as ours, our family's future looks decidedly positive despite our political differences.