THE BLOG
11/21/2016 11:55 am ET Updated Nov 21, 2017

Make Thanksgiving Great Again

Tom Young via Getty Images

Thanksgiving has always been a time of challenge for American families. Whether it is knowing that your racist uncle will show up or your gluten-free vegan cousin will demand a locally sourced organic dinner, we often seem to have a hard time sitting with our diverse family. This year, after a particularly divisive election, there is potential for an even more divisive Thanksgiving. But there is also a potential for incredible opportunity.

We have managed to insulate ourselves within our own worlds. Our Facebook feeds send us only news and information that conforms to our beliefs. Our Yahoo page is specialized to provide us the type of news we want to read. We live in communities and towns where we surround ourselves with people who typically agree with us. The next opportunity to get out of our liberal or conservative bubble may be when we sit down at the Thanksgiving table and talk.

And many of us may be especially dreading it this year.

Why is that? Are we so afraid of hearing the opinions of loved ones with whom we might not agree? Are we so afraid to have our views challenged? Are we so afraid to be vulnerable with our own family members by admitting our failures, insecurities and biases? Are we reluctant to voice opinions which conflict with those of our aunts, grandfathers, and cousins?

If our recent election result tells us anything, it is that half of the country is completely out of touch with the other half. Thanksgiving, however, is an opportunity to get back in touch. Instead of agreeing to refrain from talking about religion or politics during this holiday feast, why not begin to have real conversations again? Start having meaningful dialogues in your own family. It's hard to demonize people we know and love. It's hard to hate those with whom we break bread.

Dialogue does not mean having a discussion or a debate. A discussion is where we try to persuade someone. A debate is where we focus on "right" and "wrong." But a dialogue is where we try to broaden our own perspectives and find places of agreement. We ask questions because we want to know the answer, not because we're trying to win. In discussions, we might avoid feelings. In debates, we might discount feelings. In dialogue, we attempt to validate each others' feelings. Dialogue is hard because it means avoiding blind rage and focusing on really listening. We may get frustrated and want to storm away, win a point in our debate, and make someone else feel badly so we can feel better. Take a break. Don't push too hard. Come back to the dialogue later.

Imagine your usual Thanksgiving dinner. You casually mention your fear or joy about the recent election results. Someone at the table pushes back, maybe even strongly. You quickly become disheartened. When you share your opinions, they are discounted. You begin to find flaws in others' arguments. You are interrupted. In frustration, you call someone stupid, ignorant, misguided. They feel unheard, invalidated and belittled. Suddenly, after too many glasses of wine, you are yelling at one another, and your poor grandmother is begging you to, please, just talk about the weather.

Now imagine a different kind of Thanksgiving. In this one, you ask each other questions. You wonder aloud. You find that people are curious about your opinions and experiences, and in turn, you become curious about theirs. You ask for further clarification. You hear others' concerns. They hear yours. You are all able to bring your own life experiences to the conversation in a way that acknowledges that issues might impact each of you differently. You may not agree in the end, but for the first time in a long time, you feel more connected and engaged than you have in a long time. The door to a future conversation is nudged open.

Looking for more resources on how to bridge the abyss in your family conversations? Consider this resource, "Reaching Across the Red/Blue Divide" by Essential Partners.

Stephen Colbert once said, "Love is a verb." This Thanksgiving, actively love your family and begin to have real conversations. So much of our country lives in a space of fear, anger, and loss at a time when we need thoughtfulness, tolerance and understanding. Add love to your holiday menu, and maybe you can find a way to build a bridge to make Thanksgiving great again.


Alecia Wartowski is the Interim Director of Northwestern University's Women Center. She leads the Change Makers program where faculty and staff use the University of Michigan based Intergroup Dialoguehttps://igr.umich.edu/ method to build a more equitable and just community at Northwestern.