How to Survive Thanksgiving in Six Easy Steps

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A family sit down to Thanksgiving dinner, circa 1935.

Last year, my podcast Only Human did a series of stories about listening. It was a kind of boot camp to get all of us paying closer attention to each other going into the Thanksgiving holiday.

One of my favorite conversations at the time was with an expert on manners named Henry Alford, who painted a grim — if humorous — picture of a world where all of us desperately want to be listened to. But none of us are particularly interested in listening.

“You know, there’s that great Fran Lebowitz thing ... ‘The opposite of talking isn’t listening. It’s waiting,’” he said. “And I think a lot of people are waiting. They’re just waiting to get their agenda, their stuff out.”

Sounds pretty familiar this election season — doesn’t it? So as you head home for the holiday, I wanted to give you an updated Turkey Day Toolkit. Here’s what our listening gurus advised this year.

  1. Keep ‘em Separated. All of our experts said there was nothing wrong with avoiding, or limiting, tough conversations this year. And if you know that political infighting can’t be avoided at your Thanksgiving table — think about how to separate it out from the meal itself.  “There’s a way to say to your group, ‘Hey let’s have a political conversation after the meal,’” Henry Alford says. “And whoever wants to do that , ‘Let’s meet in the living room at 5 o’clock, bring the Band-aids and Kleenex…’”
  2. Practice makes Perfect. Last year, we asked lawyer and mediator Ken Fienberg for advice. He oversaw the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund. Technically, his job is to assign dollar amounts to unfathomable losses. But he says his real job is listening — he meets with families struggling with grief regularly. This year, he says thinking through any political conversations ahead of time is key. “Organize your thoughts, have an agenda – rather than just knee-jerk,” he says. “Think through the implications of your conversation and what you want to get out of it.”
  3. Go in Curious. Owen Muir is a psychiatrist in Brooklyn who says our reaction to this year’s election is “a failure of imagination on all our parts.” And that informs his advice on how to talk around the Thanksgiving table this year, too. He says you should “get yourself in a place where you can go, ‘I don't know how you could feel that way’ and it's not a period it's a question mark. Just literally be confused.”
  4. Speak personally, and focus on what you share. Columbia University psychologist Dr. Ali Mattu advises we remember that family is forever: “There’s a long game here...We need a new type of empathy here. We need a new way of being able to have these conversations.” He continues: “ At the heart of it… most Americans actually do share very similar values.” We all want a strong economy, to feel safe at home, to have educational opportunities for our kids. Focus on that instead of ideological differences.
  5. Make a coping plan for when it gets overwhelming. If you know your family will frustrate you, give yourself an out: make plans to see friends, slip out for a quick walk if you need to, make sure you connect with relatives you agree with — not just ones you’re inclined to bicker with.
  6. Don’t fear alternative programming. Henry Alford usually plays a round of poker at Thanksgiving. Last year, love researcher Arthur Aron recommended you play his 36 questions game to keep the conversation going. Before dinner, think through how you can keep yourself or your guests distracted — and entertained — without too much political warfare.

One more thing — we want to know how your Thanksgiving conversation goes. So after dinner, give us a call: 855-869-9692. We may put your voice message on the air.