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How do you navigate hostile dinner table conversation? Two local therapists have a few ideas

Thanksgiving dinner is right around the corner. For many, that means arguments about religion, politics and even TV shows are bound to occur. Two therapists from Ellie Mental Health will be offering their advice on how to deal with these uncomfortable conversations Monday night, Nov. 7.

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Family holiday dinners are back in full force, meaning heated conversations are bound to occur.
Illustration by Troy Becker
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FARGO — For many families, the Thanksgiving dinner table is fraught with conversational landmines. Two local mental health professionals are hoping to change that.

Moorhead’s Ellie Mental Health will be hosting an event offering tips on how to deal with dinner table conversations that take a turn for the worse when politics or social issues come up. The presentation will take place from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., Monday, Nov. 7 at the Dakota Medical Foundation office at 4141 28th Ave. S.

Leading the conversation will be John Lyon and Ruth Denton-Graber, two therapists for Ellie. Both Lyon and Denton-Graber will be available for consultations afterwards as well.

Lyon was a long-time employee at the Village Family Service Center in Fargo. He has worked for Ellie for over a year and brings “a wide variety” of mental health experience to the table.

Several years ago, Lyon created a “Dealing with Difficult People” class. It drew inspiration from the book “How to Have Impossible Conversations” by Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay.

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Given that holiday gatherings are back in full force with the COVID-19 pandemic no longer a grave concern, Lyon figured there would be many people dreading the prospect of seeing their Uncle Bill or Aunt Mildred for the first time in years.

Add two hostile election seasons and an endless onslaught of social issues on top of the pandemic and you have a recipe for disaster, Lyon thought.

While Lyon’s previous class focused on tolerating difficult people, his and Denton-Graber’s upcoming presentation will offer conversational strategies and tips. The event is geared toward all audiences, so it does not matter which side of the political aisle attendees support. “The great thing about both the book and the presentation that we’ve got is it’s apolitical,” Lyon explained. “It doesn’t matter what side of any particular line you’re on, this advice works both ways.”

Going from arguments to partnerships

Lyon is not just teaching the class on defusing hostile dinner table conversations, he practices what he preaches, too. He uses these techniques “all the time” at family gatherings, he said.

For families like Lyon’s, gatherings can be few and far between, meaning arguments big or small can ruin scarce time together. “When we do get together, I don’t want to be arguing and disagreeing and I don’t want to make things rough between everyone,” he said.

In an environment where nearly any topic of conversation can become personal, it is nearly impossible to avoid touchy subjects. While religion and politics were once considered off-limits, either or both are libel to come up at the modern dinner table. “It’s not that my brother and I disagree on financial policy, it’s that I’m an idiot and he’s a moron,” Lyon said. “We just make things way more intense and personal.”

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John Lyon, LICSW, at Ellie Mental Health offices on Oct. 27. Lyon and Ruth Denton-Graber LPCC, LMFT will present tips and tricks on how to deal with hostile or polarizing holiday dinner conversations on Monday, Nov. 7 from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m at the Dakota Medical Foundation in Fargo.
Chris Flynn / The Forum

Those subjects are only two among a litany of possible conversational landmines. Lyon encountered that exact scenario himself when a discussion about a new television show came up at a recent family event, proving even the most benign topics can turn into arguments.

The key, Lyon said, is to depersonalize the subject, which can be accomplished through sheer curiosity. Rather than defending your ideas, he explained, it is better to ask others to explain their ideas. This line of questioning can include “calibrated questions” to dig into the origins of a person’s beliefs, Lyon said.

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Another tactic is to have the proper frame of mind before the conversation even begins. Lyon said this can be done by viewing the conversation as a partnership rather than a fight. “If it’s a fight, then you have to win the fight,” he said. “If it’s a partnership, if you guys have a good talk and you both leave happy, that’s winning.”

‘Not a one and done thing’

Equally important as asking the right questions and keeping the right frame of mind is setting realistic expectations, Lyon noted.

Changing hearts and minds over a plate of turkey and mashed potatoes is unlikely to occur, Lyon said, particularly when dealing with long-held beliefs. “Ultimately, the idea is that you want people to change their mind. You can’t change their mind. There’s no information, there’s no piece of fact you can present to someone,” he said.

“You can’t give someone a piece of information and they’ll go, ‘Oh, I have seen the light. I now recognize that my whole point of view has been entirely wrong,’” Lyon explained further. “You can’t do that. That never happens.”

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Chipping away at deeply-seated opinions takes time. “It’s a process, it’s not a one and done thing,” Lyon said.

As proof, Lyon pointed to the story of Daryl Davis , a Black man who converted former Ku Klux Klan members. Davis built relationships with hundreds of Klansmen over months and years, ultimately leading them to give up their robes.

Rather than bombarding others with counter-arguments, Lyon said it is better to sow doubt. That way, people will reconsider and question their beliefs and feel like it was “their idea” to change their mind.

‘It’s important to talk about these things’

Some might wonder if bringing up sensitive subjects like inflation, the pandemic or the war in Ukraine is even worthwhile.

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Not only is it worthwhile, it is necessary for social progress, Lyon said, because it is impossible to ignore the conversational elephant in the room forever. “Trying to not talk about this stuff isn’t making it better,” he remarked. “In my professional experience, not talking about things has never made things better.”

When something “isn’t that big of a deal,” like new shows or movies, Lyon advised it is best to just let it go. Some big-picture issues cannot be let go as easily, so Lyon said it’s best to take small steps to change minds. “Being able to talk about this stuff in a way that is a conversation rather than an argument will help the other person see us as people,” he commented. “It’s easy to hate people who you don’t have any connection to. It’s hard to hate people that you know and care about.”

Of course, Lyon noted that these are advanced skills which require training and practice, otherwise it’s easy to fall into old argumentative habits. Regardless, Lyon said he wholeheartedly agrees with former President Ronald Reagan’s assertion that “all great change in America begins at the dinner table.”

“If you want to make things in the country better, it probably does start at your Thanksgiving table,” Lyon concluded. “It starts with you having conversations that are productive with people you disagree with.”

If you go

WHAT: Politics, Religion, COVID, Oh My! 'Tis the Season to Gather Respectfully
WHEN: 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., Monday, Nov. 7
WHERE: Dakota Medical Foundation, 4141 28th Ave. S., Fargo
TICKETS: Available for $25 by visiting tinyurl.com/bdfdtvns

CATCH UP ON THE INFORUM BUSINESS BEAT PODCAST
Downtown Fargo hotel project canceled, A&A opens in expanded space, pizza shop closes
Fri Feb 03 08:18:00 EST 2023
In this episode of the Business Beat Podcast, we hear about the brakes being put on a downtown Fargo development project and a new home for the popular Asian & American Supermarket. Plus, an all-natural soap company expands into the Red River Valley.

For more business stories, visit us at https://www.inforum.com/business.

00:54 Downtown Fargo hotel and apartment project canceled 01:46 Asian & American Supermarket opens in new, expanded location 02:26 Punk Chef Pizza closes 02:54 New nightclub to open in north Moorhead 03:31 Buff City Soap to open in Fargo and Grand Forks 04:07 Mexican Village to close downtown Fargo location

Thomas Evanella is a reporter for The Forum. He's worked for The Forum for over three years, primarily reporting on business news. He's also the host of the InForum Business Beat podcast, which can be streamed at InForum.com/podcasts or wherever you listen to your podcasts. Reach him at tevanella@forumcomm.com or by calling 701-241-5518. Follow him on Twitter @ThomasEvanella.
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