You’re barely two bites into the candied yams when it starts: a comment about the news, a question about the election, a criticism about “them,” whoever they are, and voices begin to rise, faces turn red and the tension feels thicker than grandma’s pumpkin pie. The specter of next week's Thanksgiving dinner is enough to give you heartburn as you realize the family gathering will include jubilant Trump supporters, angry Clinton backers and disaffected millennials still “feelin’ the Bern.” Can this holiday be saved?
At the National Conflict Resolution Center we’ve been fielding this question since election night. And we have good news. A mediation strategy that focuses on inclusive communication and civility has mended rifts across the spectrum—from feuding neighbors to quarreling colleagues, complex lawsuits to political opponents—and the same tool can help bring peace to your Thanksgiving table.
Perhaps the only point of consensus about the 2016 election is that political opponents struggle to communicate because they do not understand one another’s motivations, needs and fears. Even within families, we can become divided by rigid cultural identities, and we start to exclude from respectful consideration anyone who isn’t in our shared circle.
This Thanksgiving could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to start breaking through those barriers. For the past quarter-century, National Conflict Resolution Center has helped adversaries resolve differences by starting with the ancient Japanese principal of “Aikido,” which roughly translated means “finding a path to harmony through positive regard.”
The Aikido approach to conflict replaces a win-at-all-costs mindset with an emphasis on respect for your opponent and being prepared to set aside your own vantage point to see from the other’s perspective. This does not mean submission or surrender for either side. But it does mean the eventual outcome will provide both sides with a way forward together.
Here’s how the step-by-step process works:
Step 1: Discard the contentious notion of “right vs. wrong.” Your opinions and emotions are valid, and, therefore, the same is true of your opponent. Let go of your ego. Try to be thoughtful instead of trying to prove you own the whole truth (because no one really does).
Step 2: Take time to think before you speak. Don’t let anger cloud your mind and degrade the way you express your ideas. Breathe.
Step 3: Listen with full attention instead of reloading your own views inside your head. Listen with a goal to hear and understand what the other is saying. That is very different from pretending to listen while you are actually thinking about and rehearsing your next response. You will be correct in assuming that the person across the table has something to say that may benefit you.
Step 4: Try to determine how the others came to their viewpoints. Instead of attacking the other person’s views, be curious and ask open-ended questions: “What led you to think that?” Conflicts occur when underlying needs (to be respected or accepted) are not met or even recognized.
Step 5: Respond respectfully by restating their ideas accurately to demonstrate that you heard and understand (even if you do not agree). This can be the most critical point in any conflict resolution process. When one repeats an argument over and over like a broken record, they have not yet felt heard.
Step 6: Acknowledge that your side is not perfect. Everyone makes mistakes in action and judgment. No candidate, no party, no voter is perfect. Acknowledging and taking responsibility for flaws and mistakes imparts dignity, builds empathy, and creates momentum for coming together.
Step 7: Celebrate a shared value, and revisit a favorite memory. You may not agree with your relatives about the outcome of the election. But you love your country in equal measure. You all cherish the memory of your late grandparents. And you are similarly amazed at how quickly the children are growing.
As professional mediators can attest, conflict dissipates as if by magic when adversaries sit down together, communicate respectfully and constructively, and begin to build an entirely new relationship. On those occasions when we revisit the two parties later, we often find that they have become friends and allies and their differences are buried in the past.
This year, our Thanksgiving tradition will invite people from opposing political camps to sit down together and share a meal. That may turn out to be very fortuitous. Instead of dreading this holiday, let’s embrace it as a means of achieving our most immediate and important task: healing the wounds that have afflicted us all and affirming the miracle of American democracy.
Steven P. Dinkin is president of the National Conflict Resolution Center, a 501(c)3 organization providing resources, training and expertise to help people, organizations and communities manage and solve conflicts, with civility. Read more at www.ncrconline.com.