How To Handle Difficult Political Conversations At Thanksgiving

How to respond when your uncle refuses to change the subject, and more.

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A family thanksgiving table. Experts explain how to respond to difficult political conversations at ...
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For many, the holidays are all about being grateful and getting quality time with their family (even if that quality time is through a screen). But for others, the holidays mean awkward dinner conversations and remembering that you have literally nothing in common with your cousins. Thanksgiving is one of those particularly fraught holidays talking about politics at the dinner table can be a minefield. You might want to avoid the conversation altogether, and that's OK.

"I believe that there was a time when families were able to have healthy, productive debates about politics, but I haven’t seen that since 2016," relationship therapist Aimee Hartstein, L.C.S.W., tells Bustle. "It does seem like we are so divided that there’s truly very little point in having a holiday political discussion. All that can come of it right now is anger, hurt, and bad feelings."

You might feel that you want to have the difficult conversations and really engage. If that's the case, it's important to go in knowing the limits of the conversation. "As a general rule, always remind yourself that you cannot control others, you can only control yourself," says Danielle Forshee, Psy.D., a licensed clinical social worker. "Therefore, when others begin to talk about things that are offensive or uncomfortable, your reactions are what you can control, but you cannot control them from talking about something or having a specific opinion."

If you're planning to wade in — or just want to prepare for the inevitable — here are some tips on what to say if the dinner table conversation takes a tricky turn.


If Someone Says Something Offensive

While many difficult political conversations are rough, some of them get downright dirty. What should you do if someone says something offensive? Sometimes, the answer might be simple. "Nothing," suggests clinical psychologist Joshua Klapow, Ph.D. "Ask yourself, 'Is it worth it to get into it?' 'How long will I be here with this person?' 'Will saying something make me feel better in the moment and then start a fight?'" That fight might ultimately eat at your mental health even more in the long run.

If you really feel like you do want to say something, try to keep it short and sweet. "'I don’t appreciate that comment,' and then be ready to follow up with silence," Klapow says. "There is no reason to fight during the holidays — taking the 'highroad' often means a much easier time for you." However, if someone says something prejudiced, then that's another story...


If Someone Is Racist, Sexist Or Xenophobic

If someone is racist, sexist, xenophobic or downright prejudiced, you should address that in no uncertain terms, as long as you have the emotional space and safety for it. "[It's] not to be tolerated," Klapow says. "Simply stated, 'I don’t appreciate those remarks. I’m not sure why you felt you needed to make them, but please stop — they are hurtful'." It is possible that your relative was acting out of ignorance, so try to assess their intentions by asking something like, "What did you mean by that?" or, "Did you know that that phrase is hurtful?" You might find yourself in a position to educate them. But if it is a blatantly racist, sexist, or otherwise prejudiced statement, you can call them out and ask that they stop, Klapow says.


If Someone Gets Angry

If tempers flare at the dinner table, it's important to keep your own in check. "Stay calm," Klapow says. "You don’t have to say anything — you simply can model for them that you are not going to engage, you will not fuel angry behavior at holiday time. Staying calm sends the message that their anger is theirs only. There is nothing to say to them. If they are angry with you specifically, you can let them know that you are sorry they are angry and ask if it was something you said or did. But more than anything else, staying calm will have the biggest impact."


If Someone Says Something You Know Is True

Sometimes, you'll hear comments that are difficult to swallow — not because they're wrong, but because you know the other person is right and you don't want them to be. If this is the case, try to lean in. "'You know, you are right," Klapow suggests saying. "And nothing more. Acknowledge what they have said even if it makes you uncomfortable and then simply move on." If you want to have a constructive conversation, you need to be willing to admit when you're in the wrong — or at least when they're in the right.


If Someone Won't Change The Subject

If the conversation gets caught in a loop, you can be blunt about trying to move past it. "Ask directly to move on to something else," Klapow says. “'Hey — let’s move on to a different topic.' Or you can pivot the conversation: 'Hey, I wanted to share something with you all.' Work to change the subject and if they don’t even after your cues, simply disengage." Sometimes, a non sequitur, no matter how awkward — "Have you guys seen this TikTok?" — can save the conversation. Hopefully, other people will want to change the subject and help move it along.


If Someone Gets Their Feelings Hurt

You probably aren't the only one who finds these conversations difficult, so keep an eye out for other people who might have their feelings hurt. "Let them know you noticed," Klapow says. "Tell them you care about them, and help them rebound." He suggests saying, "'I saw you got your feelings hurt — I hate that for you, come on — let’s try to move on.'"


If Someone Is Disrespectful

If someone is disrespectful to you or about your opinions, try to stay grounded. "Context is everything here," Klapow says. "If they are disrespectful to you, let them know that you don’t appreciate the comment. Then again, stay calm. This is not about getting into a fight. It’s about stating a response and moving on. If they are disrespectful to someone else, you can take them aside and let them know that they may have hurt that person’s feelings. You can stand up for what’s right — without fighting."

Another option is to take the high ground by remembering what the holiday is supposedly all about. "If someone is disrespectful, you can say something like, 'That reminds me: Let's all go around the table and say something that we are grateful for,'" says clinical psychotherapist LeslieBeth (LB) Wish, L.C.S.W. A little reminder about why you're all here can go a long way.


If Someone Leaves The Table

If things take a dramatic turn and someone leaves the table — which can definitely happen — try to give them a moment to calm down. "The holidays can be stressful," Klapow says. "Sometimes conflict comes up and the person needs to re-group. Give them a few minutes to rebound on their own. If they don’t, you can check on them and simply ask, 'I see you are upset — is there anything I can do? Or is there anything I can listen to that you’d like to share?' Sometimes they just need to vent."


If Everyone Disagrees With You

If you find that your political opinions are completely different from everyone else's on the Zoom, it's totally OK to pick your battles. "If everyone disagrees with you, it’s your choice," Klapow says. "You can fight till the end. Or be curious about why they disagree with you. You can even ask, 'Why is it that all of you disagree with me? Help me understand why I’m alone with this perspective.' You need to remind yourself that you can create a huge blow-up by simply verbally holding your ground. It’s fine to say, 'OK, I see I am thinking differently — got it.' And leave it at that." Remember that you don't need to spend the whole meal waving the flag and fighting the good fight at the expense of your mental health.


Aimee Hartstein, L.C.S.W., relationship therapist

Danielle Forshee, Psy.D., licensed clinical social worker

Joshua Klapow, Ph.D., clinical psychologist, host of The Web Radio Show

LeslieBeth (LB) Wish, L.C.S.W., clinical psychotherapist

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