Every family in America likely faces a similar dilemma at the moment. The wide range of perspectives and emotions experienced by every person can quickly deteriorate into a hostile environment. When time comes for family dinner, the silverware ominously clinks against half-eaten plates, chins hanging low, eyes averted to avoid another explosion of anger and passion. While it is vital to have open conversations in your home, it is also important to preserve peace and sanity during these trying times. Below, I’ve listed some tips to help you navigate the dinner table dialogue.
1) Speak in calm voices
An elevated voice is an angry voice. Remember, this isn’t a fight; it’s a discussion. Raising your voice transforms conversations into arguments, and degrades education into accusation. Those being accused will close off to hearing new ideas, and lean into a self-defense mode.
2) Use “I feel”
By using “I feel”, the listener is inclined to see your viewpoint as a valid stance. Rather than assuming all people feel a certain way, you open the dialogue for other perspectives. This stance encourages your family members to voice how they feel about current events.
3) Avoid accusatory statements
Accusatory statements such as “You should be doing this” or “You are wrong because” invalidates the other person’s experience and emotions. This should never be the case. As long as someone’s viewpoint doesn’t stem from a place of hatred, it is valid. Recognize that your family member’s viewpoint may differ from your own, and that is okay. Their upbringing and obstacles in life may have produced a different perspective from your own. Listen to their thoughts. Be open and receptive to new ideas.
4) Educate, don’t instigate
Come to the table with statistics and information to support your claims. However, don’t use your data as ammunition. The purpose of family conversations is to provide a place for education and dialogue. This is not the time to ridicule others for their beliefs.
5) Excuse yourself if you feel uncomfortable
Do you see the conversation winding back and forth in repetitive circles? Are you beginning to feel attacked or belittled by your family member’s words? When the dialogue fails to move in a productive, educational direction, it is okay to take a break. Excuse yourself from the table. Take a breather. Divert the topic of conversation to something lighter. Oftentimes, we get stuck in a cyclical, draining dialogue, when you realize your perspectives will never align. It happens. You didn’t fail. You did your best.
6) Recognize areas where you may lack education or information
Did your family member bring up a powerful statistic that may change your point of view? Do you feel unable to adequately defend your stance on a situation? Press pause on the conversation, and revisit it when you feel empowered with knowledge. Read some books, surf the internet, diversify your sources of information. For all you know, you may be inclined to change your mind on a few issues. Your family members may be swayed by your wide range of credible sources. Knowledge is power.
7) Do not choose being vocal over being safe.
Most importantly, if you feel that engaging in highly charged conversations at the dinner table may be detrimental to your physical well-being, do not feel morally obliged to participate. Your safety always comes first.
I hope these tips help you facilitate a productive and enlightening conversation at the dinner table. Remember to keep an open mind and an open heart, recognize and appreciate the variety of life experience and perspective your family members have. If all family members approach a conversation with a receptive ear, I think you’ll find a lot more in common than you believed possible.