"We can see a topic differently but still have a productive conversation," says Fierce Conversations President Stacey Engle.

By Sean Neumann
November 27, 2019 01:34 PM

For many, President Donald Trump‘s possible impeachment is likely to take over dreaded political conversations at Thanksgiving tables across the country this Thursday.

But, according to one communications expert, that could be a good thing.

PEOPLE recently talked with Stacey Engle, president of the training and consultation company Fierce Conversations, about the best ways to navigate challenging conversations at the dinner table on Thanksgiving.

According to Engle, tough conversations are vital to how people grow. Navigating that at Thanksgiving dinner is no different.

“We’re not taught how to have conversations and feel uncomfortable with people that have opposing views, and it’s a skill anyone can learn,” Engle explains. “It really does start with more of the mindset and the ability to communicate when and how you want to have these conversations.”

She’s not the only one talking about how to talk with one another at Thanksgiving. While Donald Trump Jr. is urging his fans to troll their own families by “trigger[ing]” liberal relatives, former President Barack Obama on Wednesday tweeted:

“Before arguing with friends or family around the Thanksgiving table, take a look at the science behind arguing better. And it’ll never hurt to try this: ‘Listen to people, get them to think about their own experience, and highlight your common humanity.’ ”

Here is Engle’s advice on what to do.

For most, their family members are the closest people in their lives — and the last people they’d want to argue with. What’s the best way to de-escalate a passionate, even heated, conversation?

We can see a topic differently but still have a productive conversation. I think one way to soften is to respond with “and” instead of “but.” So: “Yes, I see your view and I actually see that slightly differently.” The “and” is more inclusive. It’s small, but it’s a very important tool you can use to not escalate a situation.

How do you calm yourself down when you get worked up about an issue or something someone says that you don’t agree with?

I think even being genuinely curious [helps]. Sometimes when I’m with my family, and I know this will happen on Thursday, I really genuinely want to hear what my dad thinks about this issue or thinks about Trump’s impeachment. That’s a perfect example, because I don’t think my dad will want to talk about it. I need to respect that and stop bringing it up, because it’s disrespectful. I would add, just to close out that discussion, you could say, “I really expect your opinion about X or Y and that’s why I was bringing it up, so if you ever do want to talk about it, please reach out.”

Thanksgiving dinner table
“We can see a topic differently but still have a productive conversation,” says Fierce Conversations President Stacey Engle.
| Credit: Getty

Is it a good idea to ignore having these conversations at Thanksgiving or is it better to talk about this stuff?

I personally believe that the world and our country would be a different place if we could have conversations about any topic. One of the core topics that we teach is the idea that the conversation is the relationship. That means if I want my relationship to be transparent and authentic and real, then I need to have transparent, authentic, real conversations.

What I find is that people just avoid these conversations out of fear, and most of the time we’re writing scripts about how a conversation will go that aren’t true.

What about people who are nervous about having these conversations with family at Thanksgiving? Is there anything you’d recommend people can do to prepare?

Really asking yourself what is your intent at the Thanksgiving table. Whether it’s a political topic or a family topic, you really need to think about what is your intention and why are you wanting to talk with all these people and why are you around the table with them? Most people would answer that question with, “Well, I love them,” or, “They’re people I don’t see all the time and I want to catch up with them.” That’s a whole different intention than, “Well, I have to go to this Thanksgiving.”

If you think Thanksgiving’s going to be heated and someone’s going to get into a fight, well you need to be cognizant of that context you hold because it’s already creating a potential for that to be true.

What if an argument does get heated and starts to negatively impact your family’s Thanksgiving dinner? What do you do to end that conversation?

Pulling them aside and saying, “We should continue this conversation later.” Or just say what your intention is in general with the person. Even if you don’t want to continue that conversation with that topic, it’s just going back to why are you at Thanksgiving and what are you wanting to achieve? It could be, “Let’s talk about these other areas of life.”

Has the worry about Thanksgiving dinner been different the past few years since the 2016 election?

I think it has become more divisive and, because of that, people are more conscious of what they’re saying or not saying. I don’t think that’s a good thing. Avoiding conversations and interactions with people you care about or are important to you and having self-limiting beliefs or things you can’t talk about just continues to make all possibilities for the relationship and the individual smaller.

Is how we approach the “Thanksgiving dinner” scenario a microcosm of how we should approach our daily lives as well?

Yes, I think the world’s ability to solve our greatest challenges will be contingent on our ability to have the conversation. On a micro-level, we as individuals need to step into the space of feeling slightly uncomfortable but going there, because the progress of the world is based on the progress of individuals.