Many families are familiar with one recurring Thanksgiving appetizer: political banter.
Whether it’s a cousin passing out “Feel the Bern” stickers or Donald Trump trumpeting on television in the background, many dread the moment when high-blood-pressure topics overshadow the turkey.
New York-based clinical psychologist Dr. Ben Michaelis said this very concern was a source of anxiety for a Friday afternoon patient of his who was about to fly home for the holiday.
So how to keep politics off the table at Thanksgiving? Some strategic planning can help.
“When these topics come up, you need to make an assessment about whether or not to get into them,” said Michaelis, author of “Your Next Big Thing: Ten Small Steps to Get Moving and Get Happy” (Wolf Street Press).
One solution is to follow the lead of the “Saturday Night Live” skit touching on the same situation — and put Adele’s new album on max volume.
You don’t have Adele’s new album? OK, so here is some advice from Michaelis on how to achieve a holiday dinner without discomfort.
Beware the triggers. Many things make the Thanksgiving table a toxic mix for hot-button issues — booze, for one. And when a group is present, it inhibits our ability to gracefully navigate the turbulence, Michaelis said.
“Alcohol inhibits the very mechanisms in the cerebral cortex that would allow us to have a calm conversation or deftly deflect from a tense situation,” he said.
That third glass of wine, he added, is often imbibed as a buffer against precisely this situation, which it ultimately aggravates.
Swap to a safe zone, and steer the conversation to an upcoming blockbuster (“‘Star Wars’ is a great distraction,” Michaelis suggests) or another cultural touchstone relevant to everyone from your 8-year-old nephew to your grandparents.
“If you’ve heard some juicy gossip, that’s a good way to get people distracted,” Michaelis added.
Be alert to red flags and prepared to intervene. Political topics pop up in different ways.
Some people feel baited, Michaelis said, when family members bring up controversial issues to debate.
If that happens, he suggests saying, “Look, I think we may feel differently about this, but I don’t know that I want to talk about it right now. I think it might lead us down an unhealthy road, and this holiday is really about togetherness.”
This, he added, “turns the discussion from you feeling defensive to the other person saying, ‘Do I really want to go down this road?'”
Anticipate a follow-up such as, “You don’t want to talk about it because you know I’m right.”
Deflect without admitting defeat — or feeling forced to hide your own views — with a sentence like, “Look, there is definitely more than one view on this.”
And if you do want to discuss the topic — but not necessarily commit an hour to a flashback of your time on the debate team — offer to continue the conversation later, “off stage,” Michaelis suggests. “So it’s just you and one or two other people. Ideally when there’s not a big meal involved. That’s the highest likelihood that you’re going to actually get some traction on changing (someone’s) beliefs.”
You also could offer to exchange emails later. “You can say, ‘I’d love to learn more about that, and maybe we can swap articles after dinner.'”
Whatever the political-minefield mix, the entire table will probably be thankful for a family-focused holiday — the kind where everyone is still talking by pumpkin pie.
This article was originally published on Chicago Tribune