February 22, 2020

How to talk Trump at the Thanksgiving table

For the past two years, “Racist Trump” and “Crooked Hillary” became convenient scapegoats for us to fight over. Now that the election is over, we each have a choice to make. Retreat into our sense of loss and bitterness on one hand, or triumphalism and righteousness on the other — or try to find common ground to work together.

Granted, the latter choice isn’t easy. In my decades as an executive coach focusing on the role of communication in improving working relationships, I know just how hard it is to find the words to bridge far less bitter divides.

But what if we treated the presidential campaign, in all of its ugliness, as a window into larger learning about ourselves? What if we can use this political moment to learn how we can more genuinely interact, especially in the face of disagreements and controversies not only in politics, but in our workplaces, our schools and in our personal relationships?

Let’s begin with my work axiom that I call “Problem Squared.” Whenever you have a problem to solve, you actually have two problems. First there’s the problem we agree is a problem. Pick it: deciding who should be president, where or whether we should cut expenses in our office, how to educate our students or how to raise our children. But every one of those problems is accompanied by a second, parallel problem: How do we choose to talk to one another about the first problem? More troubling is that unless we work diligently to get better at the second, both become worse. When we accept those stakes and factor them into our discussions, we potentially open the door to real solutions driven by better, more collaborative actions and behaviors.  

With this new foundation to evaluate our conversational choices, I offer five specific suggestions that, as I’ve seen in my 30-plus years of coaching, 20-plus years of marriage and nearly 20 years of parenting, heighten chances for more constructive conversations, especially when such times are rife with conflict and likely to boil over into blaming, accusation and, potentially, damaged relationships. 

Start curious. Enter the disagreement with the prime intention to understand it before trying to prove you’re right. At the outset of any tough conversation, outcomes tend to be better for all involved when there is a deliberate attempt to intentionally listen and empathize, no matter how deep the conflict. I find that listening and curiosity serve their best and highest value when deployed in conflict.

Leave them be. Release the burden of changing “their” minds. You are deluding yourself if you believe you can change anything about anyone, especially their thinking. It is not the startling statistic you offer, or your pithy response to someone’s point that wins the day. People change their minds when they want to, not when you want them to. As the saying goes, “The teacher appears when the student is ready.”

Ask/Tell. Strike a balance between telling and asking. Attempt to sit quietly and listen to the next argument you can find. Around the family dinner table, in the conference room or at a board meeting, quietly keep track of the number of statements/mini-speeches made versus the number of genuine questions asked. You will make an unerringly accurate judgment as to the health of those relationships. The more the statements outweigh the questions, the worse the relationship.

Say less. I have served as a coach and group facilitator in more than 40 Jewish professional organizations. I can unequivocally state that in every one of those places, there is far too much talking and far too little pausing to reflect on what has been said. A rabbi I know often has said that sometimes the best thing you can say is nothing. Amen, rabbi.  

Use magic words. That purple dinosaur Barney, who helped many of our children learn some early lessons of life, told young listeners to always use the magic words “please” and “thank you.” In all of your arguments that you can recall, how many did you end by expressing genuine appreciation for the endeavor that others undertook with you?  

Speaking of magic, our rabbis originally created the word “abracadabra.” Its meaning in Aramaic is literally, “When we speak, we create.” Whether your candidate won or lost the election, whether you felt nauseated or vindicated by the result, and whether you feel the need to evolve the way you converse in controversy, please know that the choices you make leave a mark on those around you. The life we lead and the lives we care about are, in the end, determined largely by the conversations we create.   

Going forth from where we’ve been, may we create wisely and with deep respect for others. That will well prepare us for whatever lies ahead. Happy Thanksgiving.

Drew Kugler is an executive and organizational coach in Los Angeles. He can be reached at dk@drewkugler.com.