My Turn: The art of Thanksgiving conversation

For the Monitor
Wednesday, November 22, 2017

With Thanksgiving just ahead and Christmas, Hanukkah and other winter celebrations around the corner, most of us are thinking about enjoying the season in the company of family and close friends. But, given today’s contentious political environment, many are also mindful of how political arguments can turn a family celebration into a very uncomfortable or unhappy event, sometimes with lasting repercussions.

No two families are alike. We are living in a time when political discussions at the holiday dinner table can become antagonistic among family members with conflicting viewpoints. While we often feel comfortable sharing our feelings about politics or other controversial issues around our own extended family, these discussions can quickly turn into arguments that dominate an otherwise enjoyable celebration.

A healthy conversation about politics or current events during family gatherings can have positive outcomes, leading to stimulating discussions and an exchange of ideas and viewpoints. However, my recommendation is that these political discussions take place away from the dinner table.

Traditionally as we gather during the holidays, we typically tend to talk and share stories with family members, in-laws or other guests. This results in lighthearted give-and-take conversations. However, that can be difficult if not impossible to maintain once seated at the table. It is not uncommon for family members with domineering or controlling personalities to take advantage of a “captive audience” by prodding and stirring up an argument at the table.

In my psychology courses, I discuss with my students how the dynamics among family members can influence family interactions. Also, in my practice as a clinical psychologist, I see first-hand how political debates among couples and families can go awry, leading to chaos.

Since the last election I have seen many families seeking help following arguments and confrontational conversations over their political differences and ideologies. These arguments often started on social media platforms or at the dinner table and resulted in increased tension among spouses, children and their parents.

Clearly, this can have a serious impact, particularly on children, and increase anxiety among all family members. It is important that children are able to be aware of different values their parents or other relatives may hold, but it is imperative that parents limit controversial arguments that may impact their child’s emotional well-being. Conversations tempered with respect for the other parent’s views are essential in fostering healthy relationships among other family members.

Listening, accommodation and compromise are key components when expressing differences – and the family dinner table is an excellent place to model this behavior.

The holidays often bring a large family circle together, which presents opportunities for extended interactions. Maintaining lively debates is encouraged as a way to help children learn self-expression and realize they have the right to formulate their own opinions, attitudes and value systems.

We should teach children by our example how to disagree without malice or contentiousness. The goal is to minimize family conflicts over differences in political ideologies. This is a good way to avoid family discord and to encourage the development of positive relationships among all family members during the holiday season.

(Dr. William B. Flynn is a professor of psychology and counseling at Franklin Pierce University in Rindge. He is a licensed psychologist in Massachusetts and New Hampshire and is a member of the American Psychological Association, the American Board of Medical Psychotherapists and the Council for the National Register of Health Service Providers in Psychology.)