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What science tells us about avoiding strife during the holidays

Holiday dinners are prime time for uncomfortable political discussions, but there are ways to make sure the debate is constructive.
Holiday dinners are prime time for uncomfortable political discussions, but there are ways to make sure the debate is constructive.(Brent Hofacker)

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 one in six Americans reported no longer speaking with a friend or family member following the previous presidential election. And just this year, the researchers Nathan P. Kalmoe and Lilliana Mason published “Lethal Mass Partisanship,” which found that nearly 20% of respondents — all Americans — believed that 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.”

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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.

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Neuroscientists, social psychologists and political scientists are exploring how and why we resolve conflict and discovering tactics that we can use to truly hear and understand each other. Dr. Kurt Gray, a neuroscientist 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. Leave the bitters in the bar.

It's challenging to stir (and like a martini should never be shaken). Here’s the gist.

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 falling trust-building exercises may not pique the interest of grandma, it doesn’t take an extraordinary activity to bridge deep divides. Try making the 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. 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. The Pew Research Center recently found that about 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. Storytelling is vital as well when it comes to bridging divides. Listening to a person’s story can help someone who may sound like an opponent turn out to be an 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. Among those same people is a foundational piece of common ground. 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.

Let’s start at the holiday table then. After all, we are people first, opinions second.

Wherever you’re seated for the holidays, you’ve got a recipe for inviting conversation. (If cocktails aren’t your jam, you can go with a glass of wine — the shared preference for the otherwise opposite U.S. Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the late Antonin Scalia.) 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. Follow Sarah on Twitter: @SarahRuger.

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