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Asking Dr. Marva Robinson: How should I handle divisive issues at the holiday dinner table?

Turkeys are basted, stuffing is stuffed, the green bean casserole is in the oven—Thanksgiving is just around the corner. There’s just one more thing to consider: How should you handle difficult and oftentimes divisive subject matter that comes up at the Thanksgiving dinner table?

From presidential candidates to the state of international affairs and even to local events that can prove polarizing, sometimes we need a little direction on how to better converse with family members during the holidays. Dr. Marva Robinson, a licensed clinical psychologist with Preston & Associates Psychology Firm, joined “St. Louis on the Air” host Don Marsh on Wednesday to discuss exactly how to discuss such issues at holiday gatherings.

“Sometimes we misinterpret the position someone else is coming from and because we hold our own position so near and dear, any speech or talk against it feels like a personal insult,” Robinson said. “We personalize what should be a conversation. It elevates from being a dialogue into a debate and, from there, it can turn left pretty easily.”

Robinson said that in her practice the three most common triggers for discord at family gatherings are:

  1. A family member brings up a past memory they think is funny but someone else does not remember it that way.
  2. Someone brings up a story about someone who has died and others are at a different point in the grieving process.
  3. Breaking news where different members of the family hold polarized views of political social issues.

Robinson said that discussing financial matters with the family, such as how an inheritance is divided, also tops the list of issues that her clients deal with around the holidays.
What’s important to remember are the issues behind the people who are disrupting the holidays.

“Sometimes people who yell the loudest or who cry the most just feel like they are not heard,” Robinson said. “Sometimes if you look beyond the externalized behaviors to hear what the message really is, it is really not that bad of a bark. Communication, how we speak to people is so critical.”

Allowing communication to happen, even if it is derisive, is crucial. Robinson offered several techniques to help ease the flow of that communication:

Set ground rules for discussion tone, not discussion topic

“You need to set ground rules, but not so much about what topics not to discuss but more about how the topics will be discussed. Ground rules that say we will respect everyone’s opinion, we won’t talk over each other, everyone will have the opportunity to express their views in a manner that is heard and respected. Ground rules more along the lines of the environment and tone, not so much about topics, because if someone says ‘we’re not going to talk about gay rights’ but you have a family member who definitely does [want to talk about it], you’ve just x’d out half the family right there, and that’s not productive.”

Keep the ground rules minimal and foundational, Robinson added.

Center the conversation in sharing and learning

“Center the conversation in ‘we are here to share and learn.’ It is not about promoting your agenda but more along the lines of listening to differing views. I think when we let go of having to have an agenda, we allow the conversation to flow a lot better.”

Humor can break up the tension, but use it wisely

“Humor does break up the tension, just as food does. Dialogue during Thanksgiving, I would encourage it. Humor can keep things light but you want to make sure you aren’t making a joke with the intention of slighting someone else. You also want to make sure your jokes aren’t derogatory in terms where it could be offensive. Is this a joke I would say in public? Is this a joke I would tell to my boss? Keeping those checkers in place can help you know if your joke is appropriate or not.”

Include everyone at the table—especially kids

“One of the biggest mistakes we could make is not including everyone in the discussion—including children. It is very important that children and adolescents need to be brought into the fold about today’s  topics, what’s happening in our world. When we exclude them from the conversation, it is almost as if we take their voice. We miss out on the innocent perspective our children have.”

If a conversation gets too offensive for a child to be a part of it, Robinson said it would be appropriate to remove the child from the conversation. One caller, however, pointed out that in that case she would ask the adults to leave the table and go for a walk.

Switch your perspective

“For hot button political topics, I like to have people play a game of switcheroo. If you know who is likely to vote for who, ask each person to switch candidates and give the pros and the cons to each person. What that does is it forces you to place yourself in a different perspective.”

When you’re headed into a contentious discussion about something like race, know your purpose before the conversation starts

“I would encourage people to walk into it to have a conversation. Is my purpose to have a great conversation with my family? Is my purpose to learning opposing views?  If that’s your purpose, then your behavior should fall in line. In order for me to hear opposing views or to have a discussion with my family, they have to remain at the table. That means, no offensive words. It means being able to listen. It means watching my own tone of voice. People can agree and disagree. It is about critical thinking skills.”

Related: Coming To Grips With The Conflict, In Ferguson And Beyond

Over the course of the segment, we heard from several different callers about their experiences bringing up polarizing topics during the holidays. Perhaps the most positive experience came from Nick, who said that last year he worried over asking his conservative family if he could bring his boyfriend to Thanksgiving.

“I’m a very liberal-minded person whereas my family is very conservative and Christian,” Nick said. “We had this silent agreement, we don’t talk politics, we don’t talk about our stance on anything, we talk about family memories. We talk about commonality among all of us. Last year, when I asked my family if I could bring my boyfriend of seven years to the dinner for the first time, it was controversial there for a second. The family ultimately said ‘We love you, we want you to be happy, please bring the person making you happy.’ There was no controversy after that, everyone had a good time. I’m happy to have my boyfriend a part of my conservative family.”

Robinson said that if Nick had never brought the subject up, he would never have known there was support for him. Opening that dialogue should be a goal of family gatherings.

“We must push ourselves to engage in more dialogue— especially dialogue that is in opposition of our core beliefs,” Robinson said. “That’s the only way we’ll start to learn why an individual may have a differing opinion. It’s the only way that we’ll learn what the defensive argument for an opposing side is. If we can’t engage in a discourse, then it goes nowhere.”

"St. Louis on the Air" discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter and join the conversation at @STLonAir.

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.