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Politics, football, and Thanksgiving

During this holiday season, the Trump administration and its critics will continue to quarrel. Liberal and conservative commentators will no doubt argue with each other on CNN or Fox News. But that does not mean we have to let politics divide our family gatherings.

Of course, some families will try to avoid “politics” altogether. After spending hours in the kitchen, no one wants the meal ruined because Uncle Bill makes an inflammatory anti-Clinton comment or because Susie, just back from college, starts calling Mr. Trump a “racist” or a “sexist.” 

While avoiding politics is tempting, this strategy unfortunately has a high price tag: less intimacy, less connection and, in the long run, greater polarization. After all, if we can't talk about such subjects in the safety of our own homes with people that we love, how can we expect politicians to do so publicly with their opponents? 

It is possible to share opinions about the issues of the day and still be close to your family and friends. Here a few quick battle-tested ground rules for making sure that you and your family enjoy your holiday meal, and the football games playing in the background at many homes during the holidays offer some useful guidance.

1. Put safety first 

Just as a football game depends on a code of conduct to which everyone agrees in advance, so does a good family conversation require some very simple ground rules. 

Even in the rough-and-tumble of a football game, safety matters. The same is true at your family dinner table.

When we feel safe, we are less likely to attack. We are better able to listen. So whatever is said, make sure the safety comes first. Which bring us to the second guideline 

2. Call timeouts when necessary

When football teams need to regroup, the coach or one of the players calls a timeout. This is a good practice for family members at holiday dinners as well.

If something is said that is triggering or upsetting, nothing works better to reset the conversation than a short break. If you can agree to take a break, it enables everyone at the table to catch their breath, have a sip of their favorite beverage, and bring their best selves to the rest of the conversation. In necessary, you can always return to the topic when everyone has settled down. 

3. Play fair

A football game is played on a level playing field. Each team plays be the same rules. Why not let that guide your mealtime as well?

No one likes to be at a table dominated by one person or one voice. It’s not fair, and it’s not fun. So agree in advance that everyone gets the same amount of time to speak without interruption. Anyone can pass, but each person has the opportunity to be heard. (All you need is a cell phone and a timekeeper.) Without this ground rule, the conversation can get too hot (interruptions, sarcastic comments, angry outbursts) or too cold (sullen silence, withdrawal, or even leaving the table).  

4. Listen and learn

Football and family conversations are profoundly different in one significant way: football is about winning; family is about connecting. The goal of the former is winning; the goal of the second is loving.

Ensuring an enjoyable holiday conversation is making clear that mealtime is not a time to win a political argument. Of course it’s only human to want others to agree with our point of view. But a holiday meal is a time for listening, learning, and connecting. When a family listens deeply to one another’s feelings and learns more about their differences as well as their similarities, it builds intimacy.  

5. Remember the kids

Particularly after this intense and bitterly fought election, children are looking for cues about how people should treat each other.  Sitting at the holiday dinner table is where they learn what family is and how relatives treat each other. Is family a place where people have to hide their feelings in order to get along? Is it a place where sharing differences leads to fights and estrangement? Or is a family a safe place where love is strong enough to hold differences and allow everyone to be seen and heard?

So this holiday season, we can give each other a sense of connection. While the meal will be done by the last kickoff, the memories can last a lifetime.

Just as family members share recipes about our favorite dishes, please share this recipe for a healthy conversation. While we believe these five ingredients are essential, no doubt your family can improve on them with their own unique contributions. If you do, you are far more likely to truly have truly happy holidays.

Mark Gerzon, President of Mediators Foundation, is the author of "The Reunited States of America: How We Can Bridge the Partisan Divide." Ted Barrett-Page is a veteran family therapist.

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