Listening Respectfully: A New Holiday Dinner Tradition

12/12/2017 02:36 pm ET Updated Dec 14, 2017

The holiday custom of gathering with loved ones for a happy feast was put to the test in the winter 2016. Still reeling from a frenzied election, Americans faced new social challenges: Can we impose a “no politics at dinner” rule? Can we enforce it? Or should we just talk about football and the weather?

A year later, partisan fissures have deepened. Football is now a politically divisive issue, and comments about the weather can spark a debate over climate change. Trying to submerge our conflicts doesn’t seem to have worked. The winter of 2017 might be the time to launch a new tradition: the holiday table as a “talking circle.”

The talking circle is rooted in indigenous social practices dating back thousands of years. This ritual gives people a secure space to resolve their differences. With just a few rules and a single piece of equipment, a talking circle can help transport participants from anger and distrust to cohesion and empathy.

As our ancestors discovered in the past millennia, the secret to bridging personal divides is to listen—to actively, carefully listen—even if you don’t agree with the speaker. If that person is a relative or friend whom you love in spite of your political differences, and you always see each other over the holidays, your stage is set.

The holiday table works perfectly as a talking circle platform because everyone can see and hear everyone else, and that face-to-face connection draws people together. The only necessary implement is a “talking piece,” which can be any object, such as an heirloom, that can be handed from one person to another.

A “circle facilitator” begins by welcoming all circle members and explaining the ground rules. Talking circles are not hierarchical, so this role should not be filled by seniority or rank. The best person for the job might be a student home from college or a newcomer to the group.

Throughout the dialogue, the circle member who holds the talking piece is the only one who speaks. Everyone else listens intently (as opposed to rehearsing in your mind what you’re going to say when it’s your turn). As the talking piece passes from one speaker to the next, the group’s attention and consideration moves with it.

Each circle member speaks from the heart and in the first person: “I feel” or “I think.” The circle dialogue should begin with a neutral icebreaker topic. Everyone could share a favorite memory from a long-ago holiday season or recall a momentous event over the past year, like a birth or a wedding.

It’s fine if the dialogue moves into the difficult terrain of politics as long as members express personal feelings without assigning blame for perceived problems or impugning the motives of others. Circle participants are often surprised to discover that, even as they reside at opposite ends of the partisan spectrum from one another, they are grappling with similar emotions that are equal in intensity and authenticity.

This is the real lesson of a talking circle, and it has special resonance at this time of year. In focusing too much on what divides us ideologically, we have relinquished the collective strength of our shared humanity. Instead of arguing loudly, we might listen quietly to learn something new about the people around us (and ourselves). It’s worth a try as we gather for the holidays, and it might help usher in a new sense of hope in the new year.

Steven P. Dinkin is president of the National Conflict Resolution Center (NCRC), which provides the resources, training and expertise to help people, organizations and communities manage and solve conflicts, with civility. Learn more at http://www.ncrconline.com/ and connect on social via Facebook and Twitter.

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