Sara Rubin loves long public meetings, red pens and reading (on newsprint). She has been editor of the Monterey County Weekly since 2016, and has been on staff since 2010.

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Sara Rubin here wishing you a Happy Thanksgiving—a time to celebrate, feast and reunite with family and friends. It’s all meant to be joyful, but in our increasingly polarized world, it can also be a source of conflict. How do you share the table with a relative who is racist, or who believes Covid-19 is a hoax – well, in that case I’d encourage you to move the dinner table outside, for your safety and for theirs – or who believes the 2020 election result was phony?

I asked a couple of experts in mediation and dialogue how to approach these types of conversations, not just at the Thanksgiving table but beyond. Bill Monning is a former state senator and Assembly member (a Democrat), and a current professor of negotiation and conflict resolution at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, as well as a professor at the Monterey College of Law, where he focuses on conflict resolution. Despite his extensive training, his first instinct is to avoid confrontation at the Thanksgiving table: “At appropriate times, be conflict-averse and steer the conversation into neutral themes, like travel. Or ask children what they’re working on in school.”

Monning remembers one holiday when his right-wing cousin was ready for a debate about abortion. “I remember saying, we can debate abortion and I’m not going to change your mind, and you’re not going to change my mind, but we’re going to bum everybody out. Why don’t we talk about sports?”

Even when we agree with each other, it’s OK to keep hot-button issues away from certain settings, says Sue Parris, chapter director of the National Coalition Building Institute’s Monterey County chapter. “We can get all worked up while we’re trying to have dinner, but we’re actually not going to solve the problem at that moment and my stomach is saying, ‘you’re making a big mistake here.’ Dinnertime is a no-politics zone, because my digestion won’t stand for it. Those conversations can wait until after dinner.”

This neutralizing approach to avoid divisive topics might work in concentrated situations (like a Thanksgiving dinner) when the higher purpose is to coexist peacefully. But are we sacrificing our integrity if we let racist or sexist comments slide? Isn’t it irresponsible to let people make hateful comments and move on as if nothing has happened? Maybe it’s over a cup of tea the next day – how do you begin to relate despite a set of alternative facts then?

Both Parris and Monning emphasize that it’s about listening more than it’s about the power of persuasion. Monning recently visited with a friend who is a practicing physician and also a professor who teaches medical students how to interview patients, and draw them out to learn about factors that may influence their health.

In short, she’s an expert on listening. And in her clinical practice, she’s encountered patients who are not vaccinated against Covid-19. Instead of lecturing them, her approach has been to listen – to find out what they care about, what reasons they might have for wanting to avoid getting Covid, what information they are relying on to make their decision. In this one-on-one setting, she’s getting through. One-hundred percent of her patients who are vaccine-resistant have changed their minds.

“It’s listening, it’s identifying with what is their fear and what is important to them,” Monning says. “You can’t do that in a 30-second PSA. It’s one-on-one.”

While it’s tempting to keep the peace at family gatherings and avoid thorny topics, they can also be a place to make those one-on-one connections – but it has to start from a place of listening and from respect, even for someone whose ideas you may not respect.

“The most challenging part of all this is that it involves actually listening to someone,” Parris says. “If they are saying something you disagree with, it doesn’t mean you condone it or you don’t care just because you are listening, with the genuine objective of understanding them more. Where there are going to be inroads is where we can connect with each other’s humanity.”

And a celebration of gratitude seems like a perfect place to do the sometimes hard work of connecting with each other’s humanity.

-Sara Rubin, editor, sara@mcweekly.com

P.S. The Monterey County Gives! campaign is currently underway through Dec. 31. Learn more about the National Coalition Building Institute—and the work of 169 other nonprofits—in this year's campaign, and please donate to support their efforts.

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