How should you handle politics at the thanksgiving table? Try listening

How should you handle politics at the thanksgiving table? Try listening

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How should you handle politics at the thanksgiving table? Try listening
Good luck avoiding politics while you share giblets and stuffing with your loudmouth uncle. There’s no shortage of irony in the fact that Thanksgiving, ostensibly our national day of gratitude and unity, falls mere weeks after the midterm elections, which are almost certainly guaranteed to expose the many ways in which we despise one another. […]
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Good luck avoiding politics while you share giblets and stuffing with your loudmouth uncle.

There’s no shortage of irony in the fact that Thanksgiving, ostensibly our national day of gratitude and unity, falls mere weeks after the midterm elections, which are almost certainly guaranteed to expose the many ways in which we despise one another.

Good luck avoiding politics while you share giblets and stuffing with your loudmouth uncle.

So much ink has been spilled about the country’s current spasm of toxic tribalism, but very few people are actually doing anything about it. I recently met some people who are. Better Angels is a nonprofit, grassroots, bipartisan citizens’ “movement” intent on bringing reds and blues together to talk in workshops across the country, in a broader attempt at “depolarizing America.” The group’s name comes from Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address and his famous appeal to the country on the brink of the Civil War. He proposed that the nation could reaffirm its bonds if Americans listened to the “better angels of our nature.”

I attended the group’s first-ever convention this past June. In fact, my team from Nightlinefollowed two of the most unlikely political bedfellows imaginable as they road-tripped to the event together. Greg Smith is a retired police chief and construction worker from rural southwest Ohio; he’s a devout evangelical and a Trumpist. Kouyar Mostashfi, an Iranian immigrant, is a computer engineer who resides in suburban Dayton, where he is an active member of the local Democratic party. They live only a few miles apart but might as well inhabit separate planets. And yet, through participating in Better Angels workshops, they have become real friends.

As they drove from Ohio to the convention site in Virginia, Smith and Mostashfi talked about everything from abortion to gun rights, all while managing to keep it civil. How? Fittingly, Better Angels’ approach was crafted by a marriage counselor who has developed practical, actionable tips that we can all use to survive encounters with the opposite tribe, and maybe even have a polite dialogue with family, friends, or colleagues.

 

1) Don’t try to change minds.

Per Bill Doherty, the gray-haired, preternaturally affable marriage counselor who designed the Better Angels approach to interpartisan dialogue, if your interlocutor senses that “your goal is to show them how stupid they are, they’re going to put their defenses up.” Instead, go in with the goal of simply trying to understand where people are coming from.

2) Make “I” statements rather than truth statements.

For example, a Democrat might have better luck saying to a Trump supporter, “I’m worried that President Trump may be violating the emoluments clause of the Constitution” rather than “The president is irredeemably corrupt, and you’re a horrible person for supporting him.”

3) Don’t characterize the other side’s opinion; just characterize your own.

For instance, a pro-Trumper would be advised to say, “I’m worried about higher taxes damaging the economy” rather than “You Democrats just want to feed at the trough of a bloated welfare state."

The goal is not to convince people to abandon their core principals. Instead, it’s to reach what Doherty calls “accurate disagreement.” When you see that members of the other side have reasons for believing what they do-even if you don’t agree with them-it can have the effect of humanizing them. It’s a powerful corrective to the news and social-media echo chambers most of us inhabit, where our opponents are demonized and our biases are affirmed.

 

I have no illusions about the Better Angels techniques being a panacea for the complex problem of polarization. Neither does Doherty, who readily admits that working with couples on the precipice of divorce is easier than working with people on opposite sides of America’s political divide. At least married couples have “commitments to each other,” he says. “There’s the glue that brought them together” in the first place. Nevertheless, I do believe that Doherty’s tips can be a salve when things get tense at the Thanksgiving table or wherever else politics comes up. As a newsman with an active side hustle in the mindfulness world, I think you can turbocharge the Better Angels approach through the practice of meditation. When I sat down to interview Doherty during the Better Angels convention, I was entirely unsurprised to learn that he’s a longtime meditator.

Here’s how meditation can help: Talking politics with people you disagree with is hard, and the key to a successful discussion is keeping yourself together. Meditation helps prevent you from getting carried away by your emotions. The self-awareness generated by a deliberate, daily reckoning with the voice in your head can make those maddening moments go more smoothly. Sure, you might still have an upsurge of anger, but you may have more room for a saner thought-track: Oh, my chest is buzzing, my ears are turning red, I’m experiencing a starburst of self-righteous thoughts . . . I’m working myself up into a lather.When you have that kind of self-awareness, you don’t have to take the bait and succumb to your ire. Instead, you can more easily follow the tips from Better Angels. At the very least, you can remain calm and collected at the dinner table.

Try this simple meditation practice-even work it into your daily routine-and you’ll be better prepared the next time politics is brought up:

1) Sit comfortably and close your eyes. A chair is fine, but if you’re feeling limber, you can sit cross-legged on the ground.

2) Bring your full attention to the feeling of your breath coming in and going out. Pick a spot where you feel the breath most prominently, such as your chest, your belly, or your nostrils.

3) Whenever you get distracted, just start again. A lot of people get hung up on this last step. They think that failure to “clear the mind” means they’re doing it wrong. But clearing the mind is impossible-unless you’re enlightened or dead. In fact, the moment you wake up from distraction is a win. When you see how crazy you are, the craziness has less chance of owning you.

What meditation does is give you some distance-some journalistic remove, if you will-from the nonstop nattering of your ego, so that you can respond wisely to, say, your uncle’s ideas about taxes that you are vehemently opposed to, rather than reacting blindly. Learning how to respond and not react is a superpower when it comes to the thorny task of dealing with political opponents. (We’ve put a few meditations on the 10% Happier app to help you hone these skills. Go to 10percenthappier.com/menshealth for free access.)

Instead of avoiding or unfriending everyone with whom you disagree, consider having a discussion. If appeals to patriotism or compassion for your opponents don’t work, do it for yourself. Trust me, not being owned by your anger is a much better way to live. You see this powerfully when you meditate. I saw it powerfully myself at the Better Angels convention-these people, ideological enemies, were actually having a good time disagreeing agreeably. It might help you, too. I’m not guaranteeing you a mind meld with the opposition, but it may ensure a moment of civility. Even with your uncle.

Get to Know Dan Harrisa

 

Dan Harris knows a thing or two about mindfulness. After suffering a panic attack live on the air of Good Morning America sent him on a journey into the world of meditation, he wrote 10% Happier, a memoir about the experience, published in 2014. The book was a surprise hit, landing at number one on the New York Times best-seller list. That led Dan to create a 10% Happier meditation app and start a 10% Happier podcast, where guests-from the Dalai Lama to RuPaul-talk with him about how meditation fits into their lives.

Last year he published his second book, Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics, for which he went on “a cross-country quest to tackle the myths, misconceptions, and self-deceptions that stop people from meditating.”

Before joining ABC News in 2000, he worked for local news outlets in New England. He lives with his wife, Bianca, and their son, Alexander, in New York City. And now he's joining the pages of Men's Health as a guide through new mental workouts.

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