A tornado, piercing arrows, a smoking gun, an explosion: American Public Square members recently drew these images to represent conflict, as part of the group’s “Family Dinner: How to Handle Conflict at the Thanksgiving Table” event at the Community of Christ Temple in Independence.
The nonpartisan organization American Public Square planned the event – which featured turkey, rolls and other Thanksgiving favorites – to address another common holiday staple: political debates, which often end in anger, or even estrangement.
“It sets off anxiety,” American Public Square member Martina McLarney said of the upcoming holiday season.
Georgia Walker affirmed this sentiment. Currently, she and her sister aren’t speaking after an argument over polarized news channels Fox News and MSNBC.
“We’re trying to figure out how we’re going to be at the same table,” Walker said.
Speakers Linda L. Moore, a licensed psychologist, and Annette Lantz-Simmons, executive director of the Kansas City-based organization Center for Conflict Resolution, shared their insight.
Moore said she started to see politics emerge as a topic in her office about four years ago. Differing opinions had led to discord in marriages, friendships, among families and among colleagues. Some clients even showed her Facebook comment threads.
According to Moore, being hurt by a loved one’s differing politics isn’t unexpected or random.
“Our brains are wired to be tribal,” she stated. “In the past, we stayed safe by being tribal and connected.”
She remarked that she’s noticed a rapid cycle: Moral arousal becomes moral outrage, which can lead to an “off with their heads,” self-righteous thought pattern. This can be driven partly by ego and fear.
Though this psychological instinct to be defensive will likely arise, Moore encouraged her audience to tamper it. In fact, she advised that it may be more productive to take an opposite, seemingly unnatural approach.
“See if you can teach yourself to listen more than you currently do,” Moore said. “Once you hear in your head, ‘I know I’m right,’ that’s a sure sign that you’re screwed.”
“Think about what the person is saying that doesn’t feel accurate, as opposed to what doesn’t feel right.”
Moore broke down that after one person speaks, the other person should be able to paraphrase what they said. This way, the receiver’s focus remains on understanding, rather than crafting a comeback. Then, this should be repeated, with roles reversed.
Moore’s suggestions for spurring this conversation included “Here’s what I heard you say. Do I have that right?” and “Tell me what you heard me say.”
Some event attendees conceded that the perceived challenge of these types of conversations often led to avoiding them altogether. Lantz-Simmons spotlighted the problem with this approach, calling conflict avoidance a “dignity violation.”
“This mindset is one of the reasons we’re in the mess that we’re in,” Lantz-Simmons argued. “We try to be nice.”
Of course, Lantz-Simmons stressed, some daily conflict must be taken in stride. However, she holds herself to a general rule: If she’s still thinking about something 24 hours later, she addresses it -- given that the relationship feels valuable and worth repairing.
For this process, she laid out five key steps:
• Resolve to uphold your own and others’ dignity.
• Move toward conflict, seeing it as an opportunity.
• Focus on interests, not positions.
• Rephrase others’ thoughts to check for understanding.
• Know that you can either be curious or right.
Though Lantz-Simmons has recognized the value of these tips in many situations, she said they don’t apply to support for violence or hate crimes. In her opinion, conflict can only be resolved when both parties feel safe and respected on the basis of gender, sexuality, race and religion.
As to whether or not they’ll apply this advice and mend relationships, some members had differing perspectives.
“They’re human beings,” Carolyn Weeks said of people with opposing views. “They’ve come to the conclusions that they’ve come to. I love them anyway.”
McLarney saw it somewhat differently. She says she struggles to continue deep relationships with those who oppose her politically.
“I think that politics are your inner core. They’re your view of how you think the world should be,” McLarney said. “If you keep yourself measured every time you talk to someone, you’re not really close.”