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How to handle those uncomfortable conversations this Thanksgiving

Being an ally around the Thanksgiving table
Posted at 11:33 AM, Nov 24, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-24 13:47:41-05

This Thanksgiving will be different for everyone. Whether you're going to a small, socially distanced gathering or doing things virtually, this year’s holiday will be a first for everyone.

However, there is one constant: uncomfortable conversations.

The old adage is to not talk about religion, politics and finances as they are bound to be personal or create polarizing views that could put a rift between family members.

This year has given no shortage of things to disagree on. Politics, the pandemic, racial justice, they all produce very strong opinions that can be on very different sides of the topic and elicit emotional responses. But whether you’re around a table or giving thanks over Zoom, these heavy topics can be talked about without ruining the holiday.

“I think that for a lot of people, Thanksgiving is going to come with an extra layer of anxiety,” said Deanna Singh, Chief Change Agent for Uplifting Impact. “There are so many things we don’t have answers for. Internal conflicts, external conflicts, this year will come with an extra layer of anxiety but also hope it comes with an extra level of Thanksgiving.”

Anxiety and stress are at all-time highs. The American Psychological Association says 60% of Americans are overwhelmed by the number of issues facing the United States right now and Generation Z, those who are 18 to 23 years old, are the most stressed. Roughly 1 in 3 people in the group report their mental health is worse than the same time last year.

Singh says because of that, it’s important to recognize what you have to be thankful for this Thursday.

"We’ve been through a lot this year,” Singh said. “So, to be able to come together around the table and enjoy the people we love, I hope it comes with this extra layer of, ‘Wow. Let’s not take this for granted.’ This is big stuff.”

The hot topic conversations also present the highest stress level for people. Eight out of ten people say the pandemic is a source of significant stress in their lives. Before the election, 68% of adults said they were stressed about it. That's up from 52% in 2016. Racial topics also bring about more stress with 59% of people saying police violence against minorities is a significant source of stress in their lives.

It doesn’t mean you should avoid those “tough to talk about” topics altogether. There has been tremendous progress made on the racial justice front this year. After the killing of George Floyd, millions of people across the globe stood up against police brutality. It’s created a conversation on standing up for African Americans and being an ally.

Around the dinner table, it may feel like an opportunity to share this newfound urge to stand up for racial equity. Singh says, it can be, if done appropriately so it has the most impact.

She has three tips to have the most productive outcome from a tough conversation.

Above all else, she says you need to check your own agenda before starting the conversation.

“Understand what you are coming to the table with and what your purest intentions are,” Singh said. “It’s important to know what your agenda is and make sure your agenda isn’t like an, ‘I got you and I’m going to prove I’m the right person.’ I have never ever seen a conversation that starts with an agenda of, ‘I got you.’ If anything, it raises defenses.”

It’s important to remember, as dug in as you are about your viewpoint and however correct you feel on the topic, someone else feels the exact same way about their own viewpoint. In order to be productive, Singh says it takes time to listen.

“There are people with different views,” Singh said. “What an amazing opportunity to go to people you trust and love and try to expand your own thinking. Try and see things from a different perspective. I think it’s an amazing opportunity to learn.”

Singh says it’s important to go into a conversation like this assuming your own opinion is wrong. It will help you gain empathy to someone else’s view and understand how you can explain your own view better.

“It’s a humbling thing to think about, wow, I could be wrong,” Singh said. “No matter how vehemently you feel, start from that premise. That could allow for you to think about how to get to a conclusion or the space you want to move your audience to in a much more effective way. I have to be open to the fact that my ideology has holes in it. I will never convince somebody if I don’t understand them.”

In order to be effective, it’s important to think about how you go about explaining your viewpoint. Singh says people have a tendency to explain their views in a way that makes sense to them but that could be counterproductive.

“When people want to have difficult conversations, the way they prepare is the way they would want to receive the information and not in a way that’s best for the person they’re trying to have the conversation with,” Singh said. “Some people want facts or numbers and they need to see things on an Excel document and that’s how they make decisions. Other people really understand through stories or experiences. If you are going to wade into the water with people of differing opinions, one thing to prepare is to think about how they receive information and what’s the most effective for them.”

Singh’s third tip is to be intentional. When it comes to politics, racial justice or how the pandemic is being handled, it can be easy to let your emotions get the best of you. She urges people to be able to address when something like that happens and acknowledge your interest in having a conversation.

“Right now, I want to talk about how great the dressing is and this turkey and who made the mac n’ cheese?” Singh said. “Have that conversation when it’s appropriate. Let’s figure out a time when it would make more sense to have a conversation. There are certain spaces and places that are good for these conversations and you should do that. There are also certain places and spaces that are not.”

By reeling in emotional responses, it can keep the conversation under control and prevent pushing loved ones farther apart.

“One of the big things for me, I like to say I feel very uncomfortable right now,” Singh said. “I’m really, really emotional about what you said. I do not think I’m in a position to handle emotions that is respectful of you and respectful of me. I’m going to stop. I’m going to stop participating in this right now.”

In order to de-escalate, Singh says it’s best to clarify what someone may have said. Asking, “What do you mean by that?” or “Can you tell me your reasoning behind that?” can be disarming ways to continue the conversation and help cooler heads prevail.

Ultimately, ‘not talking about it’ may be less of an option now than ever before and Singh says that’s OK.

“I would say this is a perfect opportunity for you to wade into those spaces if you’re feeling comfortable and feeling that calling,” Singh said. “It’s ok to do that. I would think carefully about where and how you do it. If you make a big scene of something and someone is already feeling defensive, what’s going to happen? More than likely, no matter how amazing they are as a person, they’re probably going to double down.”

Singh has many other tips she is sharing in a webinar on How to be an Ally. Uplifting Impact is hosting the virtual webinar between Feb. 1 and Feb. 3. There is more information on the Uplifting Impact website.

This story was originally published by Shaun Gallagher at WTMJ.