Chicago dinners have become all the rage in my community as of late. Neighbors, strangers coming together to have dinner to discuss race. And I think it’s an interesting phenomenon, because the reality is, most people I know would feel far safer going to a stranger’s house to talk about race than going to their own family’s home to talk about race.
Let me say that again.
We’d rather talk to strangers about race than our own families.
Or we’d rather talk to strangers about politics, gender, sexual orientation, abortion—fill in the blank with whatever the thing is your cousin/grandma/auntie will not budge on and is going to throw you out of the house about if you bring it up at Thanksgiving.
The notion of dreading a family holiday, due to the likelihood of debating politics, has become such a popular topic, I now know the the divide in our nation is literally only as far as across a family’s dining room table. And I have a family, so I know that the space of a family table can be far wider than that of a stranger’s. But it got me thinking: wouldn’t strategies designed to bridge the gap in our family’s understanding of equity be where we need to go next as a nation? If instead of formulating the work around bringing neighbors together, we started by bringing our own families together, imagine how much closer we could be to a solution? Imagine if we had the momentum around video taping and scripting Thanksgiving dinners the way we did these Chicago dinners?
So I am going to do a workshop on navigating divergent political views with family over the holidays, because it is the most common inquiry I get in empathy workshops, and it really is its own seminar. The current state of our polarized nation has left most of us feeling (at best) trepidatious about navigating the holidays with people with whom we disagree about politics. Although I hate to imagine there is an entire segment of our nation that is eagerly anticipating inciting the discomfort of cousins and grandchildren over the dinner table, the reality is that debates about our president, race, abortion laws, USC admissions, relations with Israel, and related politics are as likely to be a part of the holidays this year for many of us as pumpkin pie. So until I can host that workshop, I offer you the art of chunking.
I am a teacher. I truly believe that a life well-lived is a life that has been lesson planned. And the research backs me on this. If you have read any research on how to make a change in your life, you have probably read something about “shrinking the change.” What we know to be true about motivation is that we are more likely to persist through completion in a task we believe that we can complete—we have to believe it is within our control (internal locus of control) and we have to believe we have the power to do it (self-efficacy). So if you decide to lose 40 pounds in a week by cutting out the food you love most and eat every day, you are unlikely to make it. You won’t achieve a goal that is too ambitious or too vast a departure from your norm. You have to shrink the change. You have to set mini-goals that limp you to the bigger goal. This is why addiction programs talk about one day at a time. A lifetime of sobriety is daunting. Today is doable. 40 pounds is overwhelming. 2 pounds is within reach. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. All these wisdoms come from the same research. And that is how chunking works.
In education, especially in the current way we are addressing education, the goals we set for kids are based on an abstract vision for where we want kids to be at the end of their education experience, rather than where we want them to be at the end of the day. Grade-level goals aren’t based on where kids started the year, they are based on where the kids have to be to by the end of the year to be on their way to graduating on time in twelfth grade. I think this is why teachers look so exhausted. We have robust, ambitious, annual goals set for students in each content area by each grade level. And these grade level standards are backward-mapped from a set of knowledge goals for 12th grade graduates—annual goals come from divvying up a massive outcome into 13 equal parts. 3rd grade standards aren’t about what a 3rd grader should know when she is 8, so much as what an 8-year-old would need to know to be on pace about 10 years before she graduates. The sheer amount of complex knowledge a kid is expected to grasp within a school year is just staggering, especially so if that kid comes into the year without having grasped everything the year before. Imagine having to teach an 8-year-old how to infer an author’s historical context based on his word choice when the kid might still be figuring out how to sound out words. That is why third grade teachers are So. Damn. Tired.
But here is where this analogy of lesson planning and shrinking the change really lines up with surviving the holidays with your racist cousin Betty. Most folks walk into these family gatherings looking for their grandma to be able to infer an author’s historical context when grandma is barely doing phonics. We are looking to our extended families to have a fluency in the complexities of a political discourse right now that is the equivalent of what we want our graduates to know, and our cousins and great-aunts are walking in barely ready to do kindergarten work. You have spent the last year, five years, decade, lifetime, coming to the conclusions you have come to. This work has been different for our generation than it has been for theirs. And I can bet if you are reading this, even if you are in the same generation as cousin Betty, you are existing in a different set of spaces than some of your extended family—especially that extended family with whom you most dread discussing politics.
You read Between the World and Me, White Fragility, watched When They See Us, attended a Chicago Dinner, had a difficult conversation with a friend about race, attended a protest, and let’s back it up a little. You chose this particular source for your news, took this course in college, chose this community for your neighbors, this school for your kids, this college for your own learning—you may have even chosen not to eat at this restaurant because of who they support (full well knowing it would never impact your family but might impact your neighbor’s), voted for this candidate because of what she believes, donated to this cause because of what it means to someone you care about even though that candidate might be okay for you. You have spent a lifetime choosing your information and cultivating an environment that has led you to have the opinions you have. Creating the lens through which you see your world. This is the diet that has led to this weight. The learning that has led to this outcome. Your family has not had the same information. They have not made the same choices. If they are of a different generation, a different region, even of a different political persuasion, every aspect of the information they access on a minute-by-minute basis looks different from that which you are given. And that is unique to our time. We may have always had differences in how and what information different people in our country accessed, but never as vastly different as now. So you have to begin your thoughts about this upcoming holiday with thinking of your extended family the way a teacher would think about their incoming students: These people are entering with a particular set of skills and perspectives, and regardless of where you may want to go with them, what they see is a result of what information they have been given. It is useless to be angry about the teacher who didn’t bother to teach them phonics. It is useless to be frustrated by all the things they should know and don’t. Start with where they are. Understand what they know and respect that.
Your first step is to decide what you want for your long-term relationship with this family member. Do you want to be a partner with this person? Do you respect this person enough to want to walk with them? Are you open to the possibility of change in yourself? If you don’t respect someone, if you see yourself as superior, you should let it go. You cannot be a partner to someone you don’t respect. If you cannot see that someone has a different set of ideas and experience that have led to a different set of perspectives, than you can never truly be a partner. You are not up to the task. And if you aren’t, that is fine. Let it go, set realistic expectations for this break, this essay isn’t for you. But know that if you aren’t going for the change, the point of the holiday is to survive, maybe even enjoy yourself. Set boundaries, remember you can only change yourself, prioritize self-care, focus on that apple pie. Read up on Non-Violent Communication and owning your feelings. Not everyone has the space in their life to do that work, but remember that changing others—that is the work.
Without people to do that work, change cannot happen.
If you do decide your long-term goal is to be a partner in change for this person, then you have to shrink the change—you have to chunk the small change you need out of this holiday to make the larger change possible. This is not the holiday from which you will walk away with a breakthrough. If your cousin is walking in barely able to sound out words she is not walking out accurately interpreting subtext. Watch the TED talk with Megan Phelps Roper and know the work is in finding someone you care enough about to empathize with, and with whom you may also vehemently disagree. It is in hearing those people, seeing those people, making space for those people to be vulnerable, and chunking the mini-goals of change over a long period of time that allows the most extreme and radicalized people come to a more loving and equity minded place. If you have decided to be open to changing with them, you have to start in the same place teachers start, which is in accepting the students you are given. You can’t be angry with who you get, fault them with where they are, blame them for the information they have or have not gotten. If you have decided you really want them to be in a different place and you are going to become an expert with them, you begin by shrinking the change. The right amount of change for this holiday is going to be to just walk right along side them and to just hear where they are. Like a teacher, the students you get when they walk in your door are the students you get and you begin by loving and respecting them. So you begin by finding out who they are. And you do that with empathy.
Empathy is a learned and practiced skill. The four qualities of empathy, as outlined by Teresa Wiseman are:
1) Accepting another’s truth
2) Accepting that truth without judgement
3) Accurately interpreting the emotion of that truth
4) Reflecting back that emotion
If you want to make the emotional connection, form the trust, and establish the bond that is necessary for change, you have to begin with empathy. This is not easy. So this is where chunking comes in. If you know your long-term goal is to see a change in this person, you have to begin by giving this person the space to be seen and heard. Vulnerable. Megan Phelps Roper talks about the journey she took, moving from her upbringing in Westboro Baptist to her decision to leave—it begins by being heard and building a relationship of trust with people she expects to shut her down. When they don’t, when they listen, she is surprised by their empathy. It allows for the vulnerability that eventually allows her to listen back. But she has to be heard first. So that is your first chunk. And it is, perhaps, the hardest.
Chunking is setting a realistic goal from which I can derive motivation to work, and it sets realistic self-efficacy around that goal. It could be a very realistic goal for the holidays to hear an in-law out on their position and not argue. People without someone to argue with quickly run out of steam. When the response to statements of belief are, “I hear you saying you feel___” they run out quickly. This is an appropriate chunk. If my in-laws are still wholly steeped in a world where the information they get is very different from the information I get, I cannot expect them to walk away from a day with me completely changed. They have had a lifetime of experience to shape these views. One day with me does not undo that. But being heard, getting to say what they feel and having me hearing them without judgement—this may be their first time having that experience. And it may be transformative for them. And me. It may lead to a new understanding, for both of us. Let’s be honest. This is a far easier thing to do with a stranger down the street. It feels more vulnerable to hear a relative say something icky. It’s hard to hear someone we might even love feel something we disagree with. But hearing it—that’s where it begins. The empathy is where the trust starts. Just ask people like Christian Piccolini, former neo-Nazi, who uses empathy to reform extremists. This is how it works. This empathy chunk on your family holiday? It is a solid step toward your larger change goal.
We feel compelled to do things that feel like they are worth it, like they are in our power, like they are meaningful. And so if I am focused on really connecting with and hearing where my family member is coming from, authentically not judging how this person feels, and doing it in service of connection, it is a worthy goal. If I am focused on trying to change a person’s heart, on undoing a lifetime of beliefs in a 4-day weekend, I will be endlessly frustrated. It is the frustration of a 3rd grade teacher who is trying to pack the entire year’s standard into a single day’s lesson. You have to shrink the change—dig into the one piece that feels manageable for the time you are together. And to connect, really listen and show empathy to this person in service of the larger goal you have for them, for the two of you together, this is something appropriate for a 4-day weekend. This is something that foster the kind of change that is possible and very needed in a world as divided as ours is right now. If you walk into the holiday clear on the long-term goal, this mini-goal feels more doable. You may still need boundaries, and you may still need self-care. But empathy releases oxytocin. True empathy? Actively listening without judging? Letting go and really hearing someone—getting there with them? It engages the Parasympathetic Nervous System. So if you can really dig in and get there? It will be less stressful than if you decide to just shut them out all weekend.
There are those who would say we are too burned out, or that cousin Betty should just know better, or that the other team doesn’t deserve such a gentle touch. And they aren’t wrong. There is no clear path forward to the very divided society we live in now. But this I know for certain. The only true change in people’s opinions and hearts has come when they have been shown empathy they didn’t suspect—the most bullied kids have turned into extremist terrorists when they have been shown the empathy of murderous hate leaders. And likewise, the most murderous hate leaders have turned into leaders for equity and righteousness when shown empathy by those they opposed. I have yet to see someone switch sides in the face of being shamed, intimidated, or yelled at. It is when we have the vulnerability and trust of someone who has shown us kindness and empathy that we can be open to new possibilities, and it is in that science that I see the possibility for real change in our divided nation. Empathy, the real deal, is in our DNA and it engages us on a biological level to be more calm, relaxed, positive. You can show up to the holidays ready to grit your teeth and go hard on the wine, but you are more likely to get through the weekend if you plan on just listening, connecting, and trying to really hear where people are. I mean, you were willing to do that for your neighbor at Decatur Dinners, right?
Best of luck to you and your families and you determine the strategy you will embark on this holiday season.