The election has exposed a deep schism in our country. It’s been there all along, but, like an earthquake, the fault-lines have cracked us open in an unprecedented way. The aftershocks—of grief, rage, even terror, for some, contrasted with full-out celebration and glee of others—are still rippling through. As each side sizes up where the election outcome leaves them, there’s a silence ringing through the land, coming from family members and friends who don’t know what to say to each other to get across the great divide.
Now we’re face-to-face with the holidays, the time when families and friends are supposed to come together in harmony. For many, that seems nearly impossible, to imagine that they’ll be sitting next to ardent supporters from “the other side.” Having a communication strategy for going into interactions and events can help. There really is a way to bridge the gap; here are four tools that can help.
- Stay unarguable.
People argue because we say arguable things. Those arguable statements then can lead to escalation and full-out conflict. Knowing how to speak unarguably takes us beyond political rhetoric to actual contact and connection.
Here’s what it looks like to speak unarguably: Focus on your body sensations, your emotions, and what you really want. For example, I can’t argue with you if you say your stomach is in a knot, or your head aches, or you feel tension in your shoulders. And if you tell me you feel mad, sad, glad or scared—what’s to argue with? Finally, you speaking what you really want (or don’t want) is clear and powerful, without me being able to jump in with a retort.
Here’s what the unarguable truth sounds like in practice:
Arguable: “Hillary is a crook.” “Oh yeah, well Trump is a racist, misogynist pig!” You can see where this will go—to escalation, accompanied by alienation, disconnection, and a propensity to eat more, drink harder, and probably flee at the first possibility.
Now here’s the unarguable version: “We haven’t talked since the election. I notice my stomach is clenched, and that I feel scared of having a conflict. I really want to connect with you and enjoy ourselves. I’d prefer to not talk politics. I want to hear how you’re really doing.”
Arguable: “I can’t believe what happened! Our country is going to hell in a hand-basket!” “Oh, no it isn’t, dear. Trump is really looking out for the country.”
Even when people are trying to be nice and reassuring, things can easily end up in a conflict, with each side viewing their point of view as invalidated. Here’s the alternative:
Unarguable: “My whole body feels tight and shaky and my heart is heavy. I feel scared and sad. I’d love a hug.” “Ah, yes, I see how you feel. Yes, I’d like that, too.
Notice that, with the unarguable truth, there is really nothing that needs to be fixed or changed. People can feel whatever they’re feeling and speak about their experience in a way that doesn’t provoke defensiveness (and so, counter-attack). Connecting to our sensations and emotions and then describing them brings us into our bodies and then allows others to hear what is really happening, creating a loop of intimacy that is the reason we even have relationships.
- Know the signs of Reactive Brain; be a Shift-Genius.
At the first sign of a fire, we take measures to put it out. Similarly, when someone shows signs of being in Reactive Brain, don’t wait to act to cool things down. You’ll know it in your own body: When your muscles tense up, your pulse quickens, or you suddenly just don’t feel very good, pay attention. You or someone around you has been triggered by a perceived threat. This is not the time to react back (which would be simply throwing gasoline on the fire) but instead be a shift-genius. Have a repertoire of shift moves on hand, things like:
- Taking deeps breaths.
- Moving your body. Get up and move around, or if you’re at the table, focus on wriggling your toes or shifting your position.
- Doing something creative and/or silly. Pull out the poem you brought with you and read it out loud. Balance your spoon on your nose. Start a “who can make the weirdest face” contest. Shift the conversation to a funny or meaningful anecdote.
- Appreciate, appreciate, appreciate. Of course, Thanksgiving is the perfect opportunity to express gratitude. After the first time around the table (when everyone typically speaks about something they’re grateful for) keep your focus on what is positive and wonderful—and be willing to speak it. Tell your Aunt Gladys about how much you appreciate the time that she babysat for you. Notice something amazing about your kids or your spouse and speak it publicly. Tune into what you appreciate about yourself and savor the inner warmth you’re generating.
- Be willing to take time-outs.
If you notice you’re getting triggered, get up and get a drink or go into the bathroom (bathrooms are great for short time-outs; no one questions why you’re leaving the table). Take your time and let yourself calm down. If you’re fully in a panic or a rage, know that adrenaline takes 15-30 minutes to get metabolized. Take a walk and listen to calming music. Try not to ruminate on whatever triggered you; instead distract your thoughts with something unrelated (like the words to “America the Beautiful” or focusing on adding by sevens). Swing your arms and pump your legs to support blood flow and move chemicals through your body. Skip!
- Be intentional.
What is it you really want to get out of your holiday conversations or gatherings? Set your intentions ahead of time, things like “I want to have fun” or “I want to create deep connections.” Allow your commitments to carry you through, knowing you can recommit to what you really want as often as you need to.
Along with your best recipes and your favorite dishes, you now have some easily transportable strategies. Speaking the unarguable truth, noticing Reactive Brain and creating genius shift-moves, taking time-outs, and being intentional will support you to have family and friend interactions that feel nourishing and connected. Preparing ahead of time for holiday phone conversations and gatherings with “the other side” can help you build a bridge over what might have previously seemed to be an uncrossable divide.