For many, holiday dinner conversations this year have posed a unique challenge given the highly polarizing presidential election. And the holidays aren't over. As the end of 2016 approaches, there is one more festive event to come: The anticipated — or obligatory — rounds of New Year's Eve parties and dinners.
But be forewarned: the spirit of merrymaking mixing with the combustible fumes of lingering political loyalties can quickly ignite conversations into heated arguments and hurt feelings all around.
And yet, amidst the revelries and repasts, there are ways to avoid this. Perhaps the best defense is a pre-emptive moment of silence in which well before midnight we remember, "auld lang syne," in other words, our "long-standing friendships." Briefly reflecting on those whom we've loved and lost with the passage of time lends sobriety to emotionally escalating moments. A pause, instead of a quick retort, provides an opportunity for us to fill our minds with gratitude for the health, safety and well-being of those who are with us and that can set a positive tone for the conversations that follow. It can remind us that the point of the argument matters less than do those who give meaning to our lives.
But perhaps the most powerful silence is the silence of listening, which allows the door of acceptance and open-mindedness to quietly swing open so that we can give others the freedom to express their thoughts — hopefully with constraint and respect.
It is the same silence that surfaces when we are earnestly engaged in trying to understand why others feel the way they do before we ask them to understand us. By actively listening we can begin to reverse the acrimony that epitomized so much of the campaigns, filled as they were with accusations and misrepresentations. If we listen hard to what others are saying, we will find hidden deep within disagreements the shared goals and desires for our country's welfare along with the realization that where we differ most is in how we get there. It's hard work, but as we bid 2016 adieu, let's focus on finding the common ground, the problems and opportunities we can agree upon, before leaping to propose solutions.
To do that, we can simply ask, "what is the reason you think that?" instead of interrupting with, "but..." The result is that horizons of possibilities can broaden and conversations can deepen in meaningful ways. We'll open windows of insight that enable us to express our own views in a more acceptable light even as we find ourselves considering new ways of thinking.
People tend to be sincere in their beliefs. By showing respect and affirming points we can agree on, we create an environment of trust that permits different perspectives to enter the conversation in non-threatening ways. This expression of thoughtfulness generates a sense of safety that prompts people to participate rationally instead of simmering in silence or erupting in name-calling.
Here are nine more tips to help keep the conversation civil and enlightening (and to avoid indigestion):
1. Be courteous. By allowing others to finish their sentences, they are reassured that you hear them
2. Listen to the tone of people's voices. As the pitch rises, so do emotions so keep your own voice moderate and your tone lowered. When others raise their voices, lower yours ("when they go high, you go low")
3. Avoid showing or expressing judgment. These can register to another as threatening and incendiary. Instead, say, "that's not my experience" or "help me understand what you mean by..."
4. Use humor, not sarcasm. Finding the humor in the moment is an appropriate way to break moments of mounting tension and reset emotions
5. De-escalate your own emotions by taking a deep breath. You'll be able to think and articulate your thoughts better — and avoid saying things you'll regret later. (Choosing beverages other than alcohol ensures clarity, too)
6. Stay calm. If your pulse is beginning to race, it's a sign your ability to think and speak rationally and effectively is deteriorating
7. Steer clear of globalisms. Avoid the use of disruptive global words like "always" and "never" because they prod the listener into feeling defensive
8. Say something nice. And mean it
9. Change the subject. Politics isn't a required topic of discussion!
This year, it might be more difficult to remember why we come together for the holidays in the first place when, as a country and sometimes as families and friends, so many of us are divided in a political sense. In the spirit of fresh beginnings, then, let us propose a toast to civility and enhanced understanding. Even as we recognize the weaknesses and failures of our country, we can be reassured there is still much that is good to celebrate.
We are fortunate to live in the greatest and most powerful country on earth, a nation built on the rule of law and hard-won freedoms. Let us resolve to remember the great and good foundations of our imperfect nation.
Most of all, let us resolve to see our friends and families gathered around us in the light of forgiveness of their (and our own) weaknesses and failures and in the light of renewed appreciation of each other as human beings worthy of being treated with dignity and respect. These kinds of resolutions will keep us civil during discourse and optimistic as the new year begins.
Sharon Ribas, MBA, is a business writer and a vice president with the Mid-Atlantic Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Sharon is based in upper Montgomery County.