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How to trump political disagreements before they ruin family holiday gathering

FARGO - Scott Hennen knows the politically charged statements we've seen all year on social media and heard around the water cooler won't be going away anytime soon.

Carol Rumen/Special to the Forum
Carol Rumen / Special to Forum News Service

FARGO – Scott Hennen knows the politically charged statements we’ve seen all year on social media and heard around the water cooler won’t be going away anytime soon.

“There's no reason to think that’s not going to transfer to the holiday dinner table, but in my mind, it’s too bad because conversations ought to be civil,” he said.

The Fargo-based talk radio personality is used to strong opinions when he gets together with family for Thanksgiving. Hennen, one of four siblings, is the more conservative of the bunch, while a sister was a proud Bernie Sanders supporter, one sibling is a “well-known leftie” and the other “swings back and forth.”

As a talk show host, Hennen said he’s learned how to respectfully disagree with others, but he won’t be the only one pondering this as much of the nation gears up for a potentially contentious holiday season.

Luckily for Hennen and the rest of us, experts say there are several ways to help keep the peace.

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Set boundaries Etiquette expert Daniel Post Senning said in the past, he’s relied on a “very traditional answer” when asked about managing political conversations at holiday gatherings. The fundamentals of good etiquette come down to consideration, respect and honesty, and Senning said that’s still true now.

But that stock answer alone won’t quite cut it this year, according to the co-host of the “Awesome Etiquette” podcast and spokesperson for the Emily Post Institute.

He’s started giving some new advice, including that those who don’t feel capable or willing to engage in political conversations and debates with relatives can set boundaries ahead of time.

“You can’t force anybody; you can’t control them,” he said. “But you can definitely put out what you’re comfortable with.”

Senning suggested putting a positive spin on these requests, explaining these boundaries are meant to ensure everyone can enjoy time with family rather than endure hurt feelings or arguments.

Plan ahead Stephanie Schafer, a counselor with The Village Business Institute’s Employee Assistance Program, said it’s normal for some political discord to come up at the holidays. But this year’s tension started months ago.

“I think even before there was an outcome that the fear of the unknown was so much more prevalent than it has been before,” she said.

That’s why it’s important to plan ahead, Schafer said.

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She suggested preparing ourselves for the fact that many people will have strong feelings that can be triggered by gatherings, she said, especially if there were disagreements before political campaigns even started.

“It’s important to think about your intention,” she said. “Before you go with family or before you have family over, decide what you want this time of year to be about.”

The phenomenon of the self-fulfilling prophecy is in play, too. Planning a family gathering as if it will be problematic could lead to problems, she said, but looking forward to quality time with family can make it work better.

Be empathetic Good listening skills can go a long way, according to Schafer – especially if we can really hear what the other person is saying rather than waiting for a chance to respond.

That includes keeping an open mind and remembering that although people have different opinions, we have even more in common.

“The fears may be different, but that same anxiety or the same tension is still the similar piece,” she said. “We can connect on those similar things, and that’s empathy.”

Respecting limits Like Schafer, Senning said preparation will be crucial this year. Hosts can play an important role because guests will look to the host for cues about behavior and acceptable topics, he said.

He suggested mentally mapping out personal “bottom lines” ahead of time to feel more in control of the situation and to know possible recourses if things get heated.

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That might include having some “safe territory” topics in mind. Senning said sports, weather, celebrities and pop culture can come across as “banal” small talk, but people often forget they can turn to “immediate shared experiences,” such as the quality of a meal or the morning drive to get together, to deflect awkwardness or tension.

Still, he said one person’s preparation might not be enough to avoid all problems because it’s up to everyone at the table, and self-discipline will be important this holiday season.

“I oftentimes tell people that etiquette’s a really powerful tool when used as a tool for self-assessment and transformation,” he said. “It's much less effective when you’re using it to judge or address other people's behavior.”

Related Topics: FAMILY
Ryan Johnson is the Features Editor for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. Since joining The Forum's staff in 2012, he has also reported on several beats, including higher education, business and features. Readers can reach him at 218-791-9610 or rmjohnson@forumcomm.com
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