Las Vegas Sun

June 16, 2024

Guest column:

Science gives us a recipe for handling holiday conversations

Every group that gathers for the holidays has its own traditions. But strife at the table is as American as a Christmas turkey — and as our political climate grows more discordant, so do the conversations at holiday gatherings.

Recent data bear that out. A 2017 Reuters poll found 1 in 6 Americans reported no longer speaking with a friend or family member following the previous presidential election. And just this year, the researchers Nathan Kalmoe and Lilliana Mason published “Lethal Mass Partisanship,” which found that nearly 20% of respondents believed the country would be better off if large numbers of the opposing party died. And 42% of each political party viewed the other as “downright evil.”

The holidays tend to exacerbate those underlying tensions, bringing what was a simmer to a full boil and putting it on display for everyone at the table. But there are tools to find understanding.

Science can help.

Neuroscientists, social psychologists and political scientists are exploring how and why we resolve conflict, and are discovering tactics we can use to truly hear and understand each other. Dr. Kurt Gray, a social psychologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, calls this the “tolerance cocktail”: equal parts recognizing each other’s humanity amid strife and focusing on our shared similarities.

First, do something together. Researchers focused on understanding our brains and our psyche are discovering that we often need a shared experience of awe, humor or physical exertion to help build trust. While team-building trust falls may not pique the interest of Grandma, it doesn’t take an extraordinary activity to bridge deep divides. Shared experiences can include making dinner, setting the table or simply going for a walk.

Second, enter with a posture of learning or listening rather than persuasion. Conversations can get stuck, and these arguments can start to feel like standoffs for which there is no end. Participants dig in and listen avidly for weak spots in opposing arguments. But what if the objective of that conversation was different? Conflict resolution experts recommend that by trying to understand an opposing view instead of changing it, you may change the narrative. And you may be able to see that person for who they are: a complex individual with fervently held beliefs, rather than a dimensionless enemy that must be either converted or vanquished.

Next, start with stories instead of facts. Storytelling can also be a key weapon to neutralizing rhetoric. PEW recently found that seven out of 10 Americans believe we cannot “agree on basic facts,” and the idea of what is truth is a constant source of deep strife. Facts are important to arguments. But storytelling is vital as well, especially when it comes to bridging divides. Every single person on earth has a story to tell. And listening to a person’s story can help someone who may sound like an opponent turn out to be a friend and ally. Storytelling illuminates commonalities and can unite us as human beings first.

Lastly, identify the common ground. Regardless of our political leanings, the chances we share common concerns are great. The people at your table may disagree with you on military spending or immigration reform. But look again: Among those same people is a foundational piece of common ground. And even if it is something niche like monetary policy or a moral code that believes murder is wrong, exploring that common ground can help us start seeing each other again as people, not just political opponents.

Even with these tools, conversations can be daunting. After all, if you can’t fathom what’s inside someone’s head, how can you begin to connect with what is in their heart? Amid the headlines of polarization and division though, there’s reason for hope. A 2018 “Hidden Tribes” report found 77% of Americans believe we can unite despite our disagreements. And most folks are tired of the divisiveness.

We can all see the problem, even if we feel stymied by finding a solution.

Let’s start at the holiday table then. After all, we are people first, opinions second. The family traditions that bring us together — regardless of creed, political persuasion or color — still mean something to us and are rooted in our respect for one another. Every person has dignity and is deserving of respect. Dehumanizing someone by reducing them down to their opinions changes the conversation.

Wherever you’re seated for the holidays, you’ve got a recipe for inviting conversation. What you hear and what you understand may surprise and delight you. And that’s something to celebrate.

Sarah Ruger is director of free expression at the Charles Koch Institute and the vice president of free expression at Stand Together.