Election 2016

How to Engage With Trump-Supporting Family Members at the Thanksgiving Table

There's a way to do it without losing your mind—or your relationships.

Photo Credit: Monkey Business Images / Shutterstock

Thanksgiving is traditionally a crucible of familiar family arguments, but when the wounds of this brutal election are still so raw, this year the holiday seems a near-impossible one to face for those who oppose Donald Trump. It's tempting to fantasize about skipping the trip home altogether if home is full of loved ones who gleefully support our president-elect. But if we do go home, we may take the bait and yell at them.

“Have you lost your mind?" we might shout at the Trump supporters in our life over a freshly carved turkey. "How can you possibly imagine that Trump is going to help anyone but himself?”

And cousin Jack might fire back across the decorated dinner table, “You just want the same corrupt government we’ve always had! He’s honest, not like Hillary! He’s not part of the political machine in Washington: he won’t be afraid to make changes!”

At this point, both of us may completely lose it and the argument could spin out of control, while others jump into the fray.

The truth is, many Americans are reacting to this election by experiencing something akin to the profound grief of losing a loved one. Anger is often our antidote to despair, and there are many productive (and unproductive) ways to channel this anger if you're looking to fight back against Trump and his policies. But we face a serious problem here. Fighting for anything, even peace, accelerates spiraling cycles of conflict. Science proves that the moment we get defensive, the neurons in our brains instantly dash past the complex problem-solving part of the brain, straight to the little arena dedicated to flight-or-fight response.

If we want to step outside the arena, away from the fight, get some fresh air and get different results, we have to start by examining ourselves, and then learn how to change our response to argument.

The engaging discussions you'll have if you use this guide to Powerful Non-Defensive Communication can help you and others at your gathering, especially if you want to move the conversation as well as hearts and minds.

Note: This guide can be used any time of the year, not just at Thanksgiving—a holiday that is, it should be pointed out, already politically fraught considering it is a celebration of the Pilgrims taking advantage of the Native Americans (as well as a mass slaughter of factory farmed turkeys). While Trump is the go-to touchy political topic of the day, it is worth reminding ourselves and our elected leaders that Thanksgiving falls when Native Americans and their allies are being attacked by police while peacefully protesting to protect their water rights.

A. An Analysis of Habitual Responses Gone Wrong

Some political analysts, among others, are saying that coastal liberal elitist Democrats have lost touch with many working-class people because they act superior. Regardless of our political alliances, I think we should pay attention because it is hard to be committed to compassion, justice and peace without having a deep belief that we are right. In a world driven by power struggles where people win or lose, and thus are deemed either superior or inferior, being right translates into being the better person. And any time we feel superior, however subtle, we will always be in judgment of others.

Those others will hear only the judgment, react defensively and build instant walls of soundproofed resistance to our message. They will not be able to consider our reasoning, feel our grief or be inspired by our sense of justice and compassion. And for good reason, if what we communicate is fueled by anger and judgment.

You could shrug your shoulders and assume that rigid people who are racist, homophobic, misogynist or Islamophobic aren’t going to listen anyway, no matter how “nice” we are. That they will be unfeeling toward their fellow human, many of whom are now more vulnerable than ever.

This is the dilemma. Even those of us who want peace, who see the immense power compassion has to transform lives, still carry that whisper in our ear that says, “If we can’t get cooperation, then the most negative, divisive, prejudiced person in the room will still have the most power."

Why do we believe this? Here is one key to the answer.

The “art of persuasion” has been promoted for centuries as a skill and form of power to which we should aspire. The goal is to change someone’s reasoning, beliefs or behavior. To achieve this goal is to be masterful at controlling others.

Synonyms for persuasion confirm this assumption: seduction, brainwashing, con, conversion, potency and power.

I think this explains the ancient whisper in our ear. If we believe we must “get others to agree with us” in order to have power, then two things are likely to happen. First, trying to convince them prompts resistance—cuing them to resist, inflaming argument and hostility.  Second, our failure to convince them causes us to feel a loss of control and see them as having more power than we do. Ultimately, we are using our communication tools as weapons and shooting ourselves in the foot. Our communication has plummeted to the lowest common denominator, and we are not living up to our own values. We’ve just ended up in a bloody war of words. We can’t see alternatives other than fight or flight. But there is one.

B. Change the Process, Change the Outcome

The Greek sophist Gorgias said that the power of speech has the same effect on the condition of the soul as the application of drugs to the state of bodies. Some ways of speaking will bewitch the soul with a kind of evil persuasion; others will instill courage.

If we want to speak with a kind of power that can actually prompt others to change entrenched positions—instilling courage and even compassion—then we need to change our process. This can be hard at Thanksgiving as much as any other time, but a little practice—and maybe a glass of wine or self-care before traveling or sitting down to dinner—will go a long way in trying this new approach out.

1. Changing Intention, Voice Tone, and Body Language: In her pre-election article, How to Flip a Trump Supporter Without Pushing Too Hard, Erica Etelson suggests that the only way to do it is to “stop trying.” This means we must genuinely stop trying to convince others to agree with us. Completely.

Science has shown that while we can’t “talk” someone out of being defensive, if we communicate in a way that prompts the person to shift to any genuine emotion, they can drop their defenses instantly.

Our power must come from using our questions, statements and predictions according to their natural function as tools for talking to each other, not as weapons for manipulation and control.

We can achieve this goal by changing four simple aspects of how we communicate:Intention, voice tone, body language and some aspects of phrasing.

Disarming Questions: Curiosity as an Antidote to Power Struggle.When we are genuinely curious, it is almost virtually impossible to be judgmental or defensive in a power struggle. When you ask a curious question, bring your voice tone down at the end of the question instead of up. It is calming. Make your body language relaxed and present, without raised eyebrows, frowns or shrugs, to avoid conveying judgment. You might have to practice in the mirror! Have you ever felt really defensive and then someone says something really funny and you burst out laughing—and your defensiveness evaporates instantly? Genuine curiosity can have the same impact, even in high-conflict situations.

Inspiring Statements: Honesty Without Judgment. Statements have two formats—giving feedback to others and stating our own position. 1) When giving feedback, remember your own flaws, perhaps hurtful things you’ve done, so you can pull back from feeling superior and use a relaxed tone and body language; and 2) when stating your own thoughts, feelings and beliefs, rather than countering the other person’s position, tell the storyof your own experience. Be sure you don’t cross the line with any effort to convince.

Firm Predictions: Security Instead of Coercion. Let the other person know how you will react to what they say, and/or what you believe will happen based on certain choices others might make. Use an If... then phrase to identify a choice and the predicted consequence. The prediction must be neutral, not coaxing or punitive sounding.

C. Putting the Changes Into Action

Going back to the hypothetical conversation with cousin Jack, or any other person at the Thanksgiving table who shares his opinions, I’ll list questions, statements and predictions that can be used with regard to various issues.

Ex. 1: Trump’s Honesty

Question:What are the things about Trump that most make you trust his honesty? Tip: You can start by asking yourself, if I were truly curious right now, what would I want to know? This addresses the issue of how Trump supporters come to the conclusion that Trump is honest, which is something we might all want to be curious about.

Other Person's Possible Answer: He’s not censoring what he says to be politically correct. He doesn’t pull any punches and makes strong statements.

Statement—Feedback: I hear you saying Trump doesn’t hide what he thinks and he comes across as having strong, clear positions. I know you are an honest person and I don’t believe you’d support someone you thought was lying. So it seems to me that you may be trusting him because of the forceful way he says things and/or because he doesn’t seem to be influenced by whether other people agree or not.

Tip: Here you are trying to make sense out of the discrepancy between Jack being an honest person and how he could possibly believe Trump is honest. It also shows respect instead of criticism.

Statement—Your Position: The reason I don’t trust him is because I’ve seen him vehemently deny saying things when I have seen video of interviews he did that verifies that he did say it—such as when he said he never supported the invasion of Iraq. I’ve also seen him say things that are not true. I saw a speech President Obama was giving when the crowd was reacting loudly to a Trump protester and Obama did not continue his speech till they stopped, telling the audience the man had a right to protest, he was a veteran and an elder and should be respected. Later when I was watching part of a Trump rally on TV, I was pretty shocked when I saw him telling the crowd that Obama had harassed that protester over and over again.

Tip: If met with resistance or more argument, instead of trying to convince Jack to believe you, just switch to a prediction.

Prediction: If you want to check it out,thenI know you can find the videos on the internet. If not, then I don’t want to try to convince you.

Having made no effort to criticize or convince your cousin, you may have let a bit of doubt about Trump begin to wiggle its way into his mind. You will have never engaged in argument regardless of how he responds. Taking deep breaths helps keep you in a non-defensive place.

Ex. 2: Gun Control

Friend or Relative’s Statement: Hillary wanted to take everyone’s guns away. In the mess our country is in, we need to be able to protect ourselves. Plus, some of us do like to hunt for our own food, you know.

Question: Where did you hear that Hillary wanted to prevent everyone from having guns? Tip: Regardless of how they respond, you can just go on to your statement.

Statement—Feedback: I heard you say that Hillary wanted to change laws and prevent Americans from owning guns. At the same time, what I’ve heard her say is that she believes hunting is a time-honored tradition and doesn’t object to people having guns for self-protection. Her focus is on having better background checks and making assault rifles illegal. 

You could insert another question here: Do you object to better background checks and getting rid of assault weapons?

Statement—Your Position: When I hear how concerned Trump and other Republicans are about terrorists and protecting Americans, I can’t understand why they wouldn’t be fighting for better background checks instead of against it. Also, when I think about the fact that a semi-automatic rifle can fire 25 rounds in 2.5 second, it’s like handing weapons to killers and putting even our own schoolchildren in potential danger. I think this is horrifying and heartbreaking when we could have a solution that lets people have guns for legitimate reasons and protects us far better.

Prediction: If we don’t implement some gun control restrictions, then I believe we will continue to see an increase in people walking into crowds with guns and committing mass murders in a matter of seconds.  

Ex. 3: Immigrants

Other Person's Statement: We need to send all undocumented immigrants back to their countries. They’re taking jobs we need!

Question: Did you know that over half of the people who plant and harvest our food are undocumented immigrants?

Other Person's Answer: See, they’re taking jobs from Americans!

Statement: 1) What I think you are saying is that a lot of Americans who need jobs would be willing to do farm labor if we sent undocumented immigrants home. 2) What I’ve seen is reports that say farmers are short of people to work in the fields and Americans are less willing work as farm laborers. A Farm Union’s report said that about half of the people who plant and harvest our food are undocumented and without them, we won’t be getting food to our tables. 3) So I think you might not be taking into consideration the fact that we could end up with not nearly enough people willing to work in our fields. 4) What upsets me the most is that so many immigrants are working long days in the hot sun doing back-breaking work in service of Americans, as well as doing jobs like cleaning our houses and taking care of our children. And instead of appreciating it, we’re paying them unlivable wages and blaming them for the unemployment issues we have. I am incredibly thankful that they are willing to put food on my table. 5) Beyond the fact that we would lose essential workers, I believe that to break up families and/or send children to a country they have never lived in is inhumane and in violation of the essence of our democracy.

Tip: You may be inclined to think this statement is too long. However, it only takes a fraction over 1 minute to say, and in group gatherings many people make much longer statements.

Prediction: If Trump and our Congress do actually send millions of immigrants back to Mexico, then I think we’ll find a hole in our workforce that we don’t know how to fill and it will be devastating to us and incredibly devastating to them as well. If we can welcome and appreciate immigrants who are working hard, then I believe they will help us build a stronger America.

Note: An appeal to the human side of things (deporting undocumented immigrants will break up families) may or may not work. A human interest appeal to emotion and compassion sometimes works. It may be frustrating, though, but sometimes people will react more strongly to personal catastrophe or discomfort than to impersonal disaster. 

Ex. 4: Medicare

Questions: If Trump and the Congress privatize Medicare, do you think any of the corporations will have any more concern for our seniors getting their health care needs met than the pharmaceutical companies do? And if Social Security is abolished, who will take care of our elderly parents and grandparents?

Statement: We already have more than a third of young adults between 18 and 35 living with their parents, and if you count the ones who live with other relatives it’s over 50 percent! Trump’s plan (which, for what it's worth, did promise to provide health care for 18- to 26-year-olds) is to allow a corporate takeover of Medicare and get rid of government funded Social Security. I am afraid that millions of middle-class working Americans will end up with an incredible burden—having both their adult children and their parents all having to live together with them in one house.

Tip: There doesn’t always have to be a prediction.


Great coaches, teachers and leaders have the kind of skills you'll need to bring to the Thanksgiving table—to be honest and direct while inspiring people to achieve what many thought was impossible. In gatherings with family and friends, if we don’t get the response we want, we can still live up to our own values, keep integrity and stay at the table with less stress and more confidence. And maybe, just maybe, we can inspire some spontaneous, self-directed change in others.

Find more information about Powerful Non-Defensive Communication at www.pndc.com.

Sharon Strand Ellison is the author of Taking the War Out of Our Words.

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