This year’s Thanksgiving dinner conversations are likely to be as fiery as those ill-fated videos of people trying to deep fry a frozen turkey.
Just as family members — some whom rarely mix outside the holiday season — will come together over turkey and cranberry sauce, the House of Representatives will be engaged in public hearings that could lead to the impeachment of President Donald Trump.
And that’s on top of the usual menu of hot-button issues up for debate. Even talking about pro football is polarizing now.
“I think a lot of people are nervous about a topic that might come up during family Thanksgiving dinner,” said Nell Bolton, who works for Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services, helping people in conflict-ravaged regions of the world resolve their differences peaceful.
Bolton will speak at next year’s Mid-Atlantic Congress in Baltimore advising pastoral leaders on how to bridge the ideological divides, drawing from her experience in places such as the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia. But in the meantime, the Catholic Review talked to Bolton about how to apply some of the lessons of her upcoming boot camp to the looming holiday season.
While Bolton said Thanksgiving dinner disagreements may pale in comparison to traumas experienced in war-torn areas, her techniques, honed over almost two decades of conflict-resolution work, have real, practical applications in everyday life. She suggests using the three Bs – binding, bonding and bridging – when engaging people with whom you disagree.
The first b – binding – is a bit counterintuitive, at least on the surface. Before the holiday, rather than stocking up on pithy comebacks, take a look at yourself, she said.
“The idea behind this is that we’re not going to be able to build a more peaceful world if we don’t find peace in ourselves. We’re not going to be able to get societal reconciliation if we’re still sort of wounded internally,” said Bolton, who works out of New Orleans.
The key is “know thyself,” she said.
“Do you understand what your own triggers are? … What is your goal? Are you actually looking for connection or are you just looking to be right?” Bolton asked.
This bit of preparation can help people separate the debater from the debate. And Bolton said sometimes it’s not the issues that are really bothering us, it’s the person on the other side of the argument.
“Sometimes maybe we’re having difficulty talking about an issue because we actually have a relationship problem we need to solve.” Bolton said.
Reflecting on why you get so upset when a family member talks about certain subjects could avoid damaging arguments later.
“What we often find is that in the process, we hear testimonial after testimonial of how people report of having a greater awareness of why I’m acting this way,” Bolton said.
“The idea behind this is that we’re not going to be able to build a more peaceful world if we don’t find peace in ourselves. We’re not going to be able to get societal reconciliation if we’re still sort of wounded internally.” — Nell Bolton
The second b – bonding – brings people to together people who share common goals or views before engaging with people on the other side of the divide. This can be as simple as touching base with family members who share your politics to make sure you don’t gang up on the loved one who has different views. But it also can mean seeking out the similarities with the people we disagree with.
“One thing that’s really important that we pick as our starting point the idea that we all share this fundamental human dignity,” Bolton said, referring to a key principal of Catholic social teaching.
The final B – bridging – or directly engaging the person with whom you disagree might involve some uncomfortable moments, but that’s OK, Bolton said. She suggests trying to listen more than you speak.
“We’ve all got our snappy lines and positions, but it is worth it sometimes to ask someone what’s behind their viewpoints, Bolton said. “We can actually ask some open-ended question and even invite people to share stories. Like, ‘What in your life experience made this an important issue for you?’”
Merely avoiding controversial issues (i.e. “don’t talk about religion and politics in polite conversation”) might do more harm than good.
“I can say that our experience around the world says that just because we don’t talk about issues and address them doesn’t make them go away,” Bolton said. “We see that over and over again in conflict settings where we’re working, that sort of unless we can figure out a healthy and constructive way to deal with their differences … those issues come out in other less healthy ways.”
The best debates, Bolton said, are the one where both parties disagree but respect each other’s human dignity.
“Uncomfortable discussions help us find a way to move forward together as one society,” she said.
In Bolton’s work overseas, when the two opposing parties come together in the bridging stage, they often work on a community development project together. The shared experience brings them together.
The last bit of advice goes beyond the Thanksgiving dinner table: Bolton suggests finding common interests and plan to spend more time with the person you have been arguing with, rather than just ignoring the offending relative until next year.
“Can you find something that you might do together as a way of strengthening the relationship?” Bolton said. “That then becomes a container for you to actually have more discussions down the road.”
Email Tim Swift at tswift@CatholicReview.org.
The MidAtlantic Congress 2020 for pastoral leadership runs from Jan. 30 to Feb. 1 at the Hilton Baltimore Hotel. For more information, visit https://midatlanticcongress.org