As you sit down for Thanksgiving dinner this year, discussion is bound to move toward politics.  Why did you vote for that candidate?  How could you support those policies?  Before you know it, half the family is yelling, the other half is sulking, and the turkey is cold.  The forces of tribalism are so powerful in our country that they risk polarizing the family.

But they can be overcome.  Over the past two decades, my research has shed light on key emotional forces that draw us into conflict, whether at the national level or at the dinner table.  Only through awareness of these dynamics can we combat their pernicious appeal.

The single most powerful force pulling us toward polarization is what I call the tribes effect, a divisive mindset that affects nations as much as families.  The moment our beliefs feel attacked, tribal impulses slice our humanity into categories:  it’s us vs. them, red vs. blue, hawk vs. dove.  This state of mind propels us to defend our own views and demonize the other, creating a self-reinforcing cycle of negative relations.

Pre-existing rivalries exacerbate this tension.  As siblings feud over politics, they may refuse to acknowledge each other’s perspective for fear that it will confirm personal insecurities that the other is smarter or more successful.  Winning overshadows understanding.

When politics gets personal, we risk becoming so consumed in the vertigo-like swirl of strong emotions that we resort to ad hominem attacks– the family’s version of negative campaigning—and end up saying things that are hard to forgive, sabotaging long-term relations.

The forces of tribalism are a recipe for a failed Thanksgiving dinner—but they can be countered.  Before sitting down to eat, consciously decide whether it makes sense to talk politics or whether your family deserves a brief escape from the cold realities of the political season.  Envision what a productive conversation would look like – and if it’s even feasible.

If you choose to broach the subject, know your purpose, whether to learn about each other’s perspectives or debate the issues.  In my own experience in facilitating political dialogue, I have found that a useful question is to ask each person to share how the election has personally affected them.  This reframes the focus of conversation away from divisive politics and toward its personal impact, and the question is simple enough for even kids to answer. 

Consider capping the discussion at dessert.  Politics is important, but so is family cohesion.  One way to reinforce that point is to ask everyone to share one thing they are grateful for about the family.  A little appreciation can go a long way in rekindling connection.

But the choice is yours, and ultimately all of ours.  Will we submit to our tribal instinct or nourish the better angels of our souls?  The nation awaits our answer.

— Daniel L. Shapiro, published in “Psychology Today “

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