Expert advice on surviving Thanksgiving dinner—from a hostage negotiator, marriage guru, and others

Image: AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta
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This time last year, many of us were bracing for a Bay of Pigs-like standoff over Thanksgiving dinner. Trump had just been elected and his supporters were elated and energized. Clinton supporters were angry and despairing. The world was fractured, bruised by Brexit in the UK, ISIL attacks seemingly everywhere, and turmoil in Turkey (the country, not the bird).

A year later, things are not looking much calmer. Trump has had a year to show us who he really is, talking trash on Twitter, making secret golf outings, and supporting Roy Moore, while proposing lopsided tax cuts (#MAGA). Clinton published her mea culpa, which assumed a tiny bit of blame but mostly cast it on others (James Comey, Russia, the media), while throwing Donna Brazile under the bus (who returned the favor). Add the tidal wave of #MeToo and you have all the making for a potentially combustible holiday when politics are discussed over dinner. So what’s a divided family to do?

We offer you advice from a hostage negotiator, a marriage guru, and Alcoholics Anonymous (no statement on your holiday intake). In summary:

  • Be curious
  • Avoid regrettable incidents
  • Memorize the serenity prayer

Take no prisoners

“Be curious” comes from George Kohlrieser, a seasoned hostage negotiator who has himself been held hostage four times. He is now a professor of leadership and organizational behavior at the IMD business school in Switzerland and, fittingly, wrote a book called Hostage at the Table.

If you are thinking, “how can I be curious about misogyny?” I’m with you. But consider this: When Kohlrieser was negotiating with kidnappers, he was not trying to persuade them of his very rational viewpoint (namely, “put down the gun, hand over the people”, and “killing people probably won’t make things better”). He had to convince hostage takers to make decisions; he had to give them options. That usually meant figuring out why kidnappers took the hostages, and what they hoped to achieve as a result. Kohlrieser didn’t judge; he inquired.

“You don’t persuade by arguing, you persuade by questioning, and engaging in dialog,” he says.

Indeed, Kohlrieser sees some parallels between hostage negotiations and Thanksgiving, where expectations are high and everyone comes loaded with a lifetime of grievances. “You can be a psychological hostage,” he tells Quartz. “No one has to put a weapon to your head for you to feel hostage to a situation.”

The key is to refuse to let that happen. Be prepared with the right mindset, namely that no one is taking you hostage. He suggests the following tactics to defuse tension with people who don’t agree with you:

  • Know your emotions and be prepared to manage them
  • Listen with an intent to hear, rather than react
  • Acceptance does not mean agreement

Avoid regrettable incidents

John Gottman is pretty much the world’s leading expert on marriage. He is a renowned Seattle-based psychologist who says that he can predict with 90% accuracy whether you and your partner will stay together, based only on a 15-minute conversation about a contentious subject.

Gottman runs a relationship-research institute and has written many, many books about building and maintaining a happy marriage. My favorites suggest how to avoid the four horsemen of the apocalypse: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. Instead of racing to judgement, try a “gentle start-up”; instead of contempt try building a culture of appreciation, which translates to giving significantly more positive feedback than negative; instead of defensiveness try taking responsibility; and instead of stonewalling, try physiological self-soothing.

Thanksgiving dinner may only last a few hours. But the idea holds: the four horsemen represent deficient ways to deal with humans you love, even if you profoundly disagree with them. So avoid them. Heading down the route of contempt often leads to saying the thing you can’t take back, like, calling your uncle a sexist pig, or perhaps comparing the president to Hitler and then referring to supporters (at the table, like Aunt Gladys) as Nazi sympathizers. It may be how you feel, but once said, it cannot be unsaid. And Gottman says those regrettable incidents can become toxic.

And as they say, you can pick your friends—and your spouse—but you can’t pick your family.

Remember the serenity prayer

Which leads me to part there. My father is an alcoholic who has been sober for eight years. He often invokes the serenity prayer, which he learned about at Alcoholics Anonymous. I have found it to be reassuring in situations, including talking politics with him. You can leave God out of it, of course, but it goes like this:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change; 
courage to change the things I can; 
and wisdom to know the difference.

We are changing the world with #MeToo. We probably won’t change our relatives over a meal. We should acknowledge the difference.