Before talking politics this Thanksgiving, ask yourself these questions

A toast at a Thanksgiving table.

Release Date: November 26, 2019

Catherine Cook-Cottone.
“I love to talk about politics. I think these discussions matter and can help bring people together. But political conversations are challenging in general, and even more so in our current political climate. So thinking about ‘why’ you want say to something — what’s the goal? — is really important.”
Catherine Cook-Cottone, professor of counseling, school and educational psychology
University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. — In a few days, people will gather around the Thanksgiving table for delicious food and bonding with family and friends.

Unfortunately for many people, this peaceful holiday is also filled with angst that even the simplest conversation might go astray and turn into a shouting match over politics.

Before that happens, University at Buffalo psychologist and mindfulness expert Catherine Cook-Cottone recommends asking yourself a few key questions on how you can avoid letting political talk ruin Thanksgiving dinner.

What is your goal?

To express yourself? To change minds? To stir the pot? To fill an awkward silence? If you are not sure, then Cook-Cottone, PhD, professor of counseling, school and educational psychology in UB’s Graduate School of Education, recommends pausing and taking a deep breath.

“I love to talk about politics. I think these discussions matter and can help bring people together,” she says. “But political conversations are challenging in general, and even more so in our current political climate. So thinking about ‘why’ you want say to something — what’s the goal? — is really important.”

Is this the best time to have this conversation?

“This might be something that you want to do and it might be something that you want to avoid — only you know what is right for you and your family. Thanksgiving is a time to be together and express our gratitude with those we love. Would this conversation contribute or take away from that experience? Remember, there is always Friday morning for a nice walk and a long political conversation.”

If you do have the conversation, listen mindfully

“If you do decide to have this conversation, mindfully listen. Don’t listen simply to answer or argue. Instead ground your feet, breathe deeply, and listen to truly understand and be with the person in front of you,” she says.

When is a wrong time to talk politics?

  • There is a lot of drinking
  • You have family members who become easily agitated about the topic
  • You have family members who get anxious about these types of discussions.

A politics-free day

“It’s okay to call the day a politics-free day and remind people if they forget. In mindfulness we say, ‘remember — we forget,’ so be okay simply reminding people. For example, ‘Remember grandma, it’s a politics-free day,’” Cook-Cottone says.

Overall, Cook-Cottone encourages individuals to look for common humanity, connection, and ways to share concerns and listen with respect. But if you think politics are unavoidable, she makes the following recommendations.

Politics, get a room

“It’s okay to establish a politics talk room. ‘Uncle — remember that’s living room only talk — not dinner table talk,’” she says.

Check yourself, then pause

“If it comes up, how is your body? Tense? Is your heart racing? What’s your emotional state — anxious, agitated, mad, frustrated? What are you thinking? Do this, then pause,” Cook-Cottone says. “If you feel upset, ground your feet, press your sitting bones into the chair and take three deep breaths counting in for one count and out for two counts. This resets your nervous system. Then choose your option.”

Diversion

Here’s an example. “Let’s focus on the Turkey and save this one for another day. Or Anyone up for cards?” she says.

Validate and postpone

For example. “What you bring up is so important. Can we carve out some time this weekend to talk this over?” she says.

Find a private place to talk

“I can tell this matters to you, but they (other family members) seem less interested. Let’s head to the other room and continue this,” Cook-Cottone offers.

And lastly, Cook-Cottone offers the following take-home points for being mindful on Thanksgiving.

  • Be mindful of your ‘why,’ yours and other people you’re with. 
  • Be mindfully aware of the whole group. Is this okay for everyone? 
  • Be mindfully aware of your body, heart and mind. Are you in a good place to do this? 
  • Be aware of the same in others. Are they in a good place to do this? 
  • Have a set of strategies for being with and working with the possibilities (see notes above).
  • Remember what Thanksgiving is all about: gratitude. This is the focus for the day. If you get off track, bring yourself back to gratitude. That is what mindfulness is, the practice of continually bringing yourself back to what matters.

Media Contact Information

Douglas Sitler
Associate Director of National/International Media Relations
Faculty Experts

Tel: 716-645-9069
drsitler@buffalo.edu