The phone call from the distraught mother still sticks in Carolyn Lukensmeyer’s mind.
It was shortly after the 2016 election, and just before Thanksgiving. The woman, calling from New England, had daughters of similar ages in Ivy League schools, and they hadn’t spoken since the election. Why? One of them had voted for Donald Trump, the other for Hillary Clinton.
How, the woman asked, could they just have a nice family Thanksgiving?
That call and many others like it led the National Institute for Civil Discourse to develop a guide it shares with civic groups, business associations, religious groups, and others on how to have a conversation about politics that doesn’t turn into a red-faced shouting match.
“Ever since the 2016 election, around Thanksgiving the institute receives many, many inquires — emails, social media, even phone calls," said Lukensmeyer, the group’s executive director emerita. "The volume was not as high this year as previous years, but it’s still a major concern.”
We asked Lukensmeyer about how people can stay calm when that one uncle wants to share his political views at the family Thanksgiving. The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
What advice do you offer families trying to avoid political fights?
"Based on what we learned those first couple years, the first question that I’m likely to ask folks is: ‘Is it wise for you to have any kind of political discussion at your Thanksgiving table?’
“Once you ask that initial question, then it’s, ‘Well, then, let’s decide how we can engage the family at Thanksgiving without getting into politics,’ which I’m sure this year is going to be intensely complicated again because of the impeachment inquiry.”
Is there a different way to engage in conversation without falling into the debates of the moment?
"Ask … ‘What’s the moment you were most proud to be an American?’ When you answer that question, then the follow-up questions people ask are about our life experience: ‘What about that? What made you so proud?’
"And we suggest people ask a different question: ‘What’s the moment you were least proud?’
"What it does is, it just opens up a connection to the heartfelt energy of the people at the table, and we then encourage them to ask follow-up questions. 'What makes you feel that way? We grew up in the same family, I feel so differently.’
"It’s to shift the focus completely away from trying to influence the other person’s positions. When we’re in these political discussions, it’s to try to convince the other person that they’re wrong … [A question aims] to shift this discussion from advocacy — ‘my person’s better’ — to understanding.
“What’s important for this conversation is, ‘Why did my life experience lead me to make the choice I made?’ And, ‘Why did your life experience lead you to make the choice you made?’”
But what if you have that one relative who won’t steer clear of the politics of the moment?
"What we teach people at that point is: Take a deep breath and ask another question. The goal is to de-escalate your own response. You’ve had an internal, emotional response, and by breathing and asking another question, you can reduce your own internal reaction to what the person said.
"Even if the question is, ‘Where did you get that fact?’ … keep the focus on getting that other person to share where they came to that belief. Your goal is to learn why this person thinks the way they think.
"If you have some sense that this is going to turn into a fight, our recommendation is to discontinue the conversation. Nothing we do here today is going to change anything the House of Representatives is doing.
"Here’s another important principle: Our relationship is more important than our differences in politics.
“That’s what people have to be reminded of.”
The institute has resources and discussion guides at www.revivecivility.org.