Hello there,

I wish you all well as we enter the holiday season. And once again, this is the time of year when many people get in touch to ask advice on how to navigate the inevitable holiday gatherings that include family members and friends who hold different views about political, cultural and world events.

In November of 2016, following the US presidential elections, I posted an article giving others advice on how to approach challenging conversations about politics, as well as ways to take care of oneself, for the holiday family gatherings. I took some time to reread that post and it made me contemplate, with much sadness, how much more polarized and separated we are. It’s amazing to see what can happen in a three-year span. Not only in the United States – you can see the same happening in Europe and other parts of the world.

Three years ago, the advice I gave offered strategies for protection, as well as ways to avoid and prevent the charged emotions, reactivity and arguments. Today I also see how these gatherings can be a possible opportunity for healing, reconciliation, new solutions and hope.

For the last couple of years, I have been doing various social engagement projects in the Middle East and in the US. For instance, Kevin John Fong, founder of Elemental Partners, and I have created ways to combine the Respectful Confrontation work with social, racial and economic equity advocacy work. We both share similar viewpoints on what could be the best solutions to bring about lasting change that unites us and leads to more equity and belonging for all. Our approach is inspired by many, including john a. powell of the Othering & Belonging Institute at UC Berkeley, who takes very complex issues and distills the solutions to something very simple, including that it is our job at this moment is to do all we can to shift our patterns from “breaking” to “bridging”.

It’s not hard to see that polarization has us locked in a standstill on a global scale. Whether on the left or right, we’re stuck in patterns of “othering,” tribalism, simplistic framing of good/bad, right/wrong, and backsliding behavior of bully/victim, passivity/aggression. It is apparent that we’re not progressing—are even, in some ways, devolving into pre- 21st century patterns and ways of seeing the world.

We are creating more “breaking” and less “bridging”. And, unfortunately, while we stay locked into this very narrow, contracted way of seeing things, forces around us are gaining more power and creating a world leading to a deeper chasm in alliances, social and economic unrest, less safety and security around the world and a planet that is on fire.

I have been spending a lot of time recently examining the causes and possible solutions for this, as I am currently working on a new book, called “Fierce Civility: Reviving the Global Heart”. (More on this soon… J) While there are many causes, here is one that I feel is most significant: We not longer gather in public places where we learn how to engage with, and get along with, those who are different. We rely on the internet for information, we allow the media to decide for us what our perception is of “the other” and of current events. We have stopped listening and thinking for ourselves!

I’ve been saying for a long time, “If hanging out only with people who agree with you was going to solve our world problems, we would have solved them already.”We need to find ways to communicate and listen with respect with those who hold different views, and create the bridges necessary to break the stagnation of polarization and create lasting change.

What if your holiday events with challenging family members are actually opportunities to alleviate breaking and to create bridging? What if it’s possible for both of you to walk away having learned something you didn’t know, which was respectfully shared? Maybe this is how it starts.

So here are some tips that I hope can be useful during these holiday gatherings. Everyone’s experience is unique, so these are general. I have heard from many that these tips have rekindled relationships and brought a sense of peace. Perhaps this can support you, to first, make sure you feel safe and supported, and second, to possibly cultivate connection and reconciliation:

  • Set boundaries: You have every right to respectfully say that you don’t want to have any conversations about politics and that you will respectfully step away if a conversation starts. If you are feeling confident enough to engage in conversations, there is another way to set boundaries. Make it clear, in a respectful way, that you are willing to discuss politics, but only if the conversation stays respectful and if everyone involved is willing to listen with an open heart. If that is not agreed upon, then make it clear that you will be dismissing yourself when those conversations begin.

For those of you who have experienced the Respectful Confrontation work, review your notes, or check out the Mastering Respectful Confrontation book, on how to set boundaries, as well as the section on the different types of “no”.

  • Be curious: Be selective with your own words, practice silence and deepen your listening skills. If you truly listen to what others have to say, you may learn something new or receive information you didn’t have previously that might help you find common ground and peace at this time. Remember the teaching from Respectful Confrontation: “My truth does not equal the truth”. Consider that you can’t possibly have the whole picture of what is unfolding on the planet. While someone may have a different viewpoint, starting with the position that they are “wrong” will only lead to deeper separation and arguments. If you truly listen with curiosity, you may find that you agree with maybe even 10% of what they say. This may give you a better insight into their beliefs and worldview, which can be a valuable way to create bridging, common ground and possibilities for new solutions.
  • Activate love and compassion: If the people you will be spending time with are family or friends, remember how at some time they have loved you and how you have loved them. Notice ways in which they suffer and are fearful, and muster up the compassion to wish for them that they be free of their suffering. No one needs to know you are doing this. This is an internal process of cultivating resilience and fierce compassion.
  • Rely on your daily practice: Be sure to find time to do the things that empower you and bring you balance and peace. Make time to do practices that currently work for you – meditation, yoga, Tai Chi, etc.

The Core Exercise could help you stay present and centered. Elephant walking can keep you grounded. Again, review the book and your notes for a refresher if you are not doing these exercises on a regular basis

  • Contact your support network: Perhaps you can arrange with 3 of your trusting friends that if you need them, they will be close to the phone to help you ground and find balance. Offer to be a support to your friends as well. If you have “allies” at the gathering, ask for support in a way that doesn’t create more “othering” and breaking.
  • Use humor: Use your Pillar of Flexibility and Respectful Defense, and see if you can keep things light. We are all trying to figure out how to be in the world today, some of us better than others. We all have different ways to navigate stress, anxiety and fear. Human beings – all of us – are pretty funny creatures. Humor is a great way to diffuse tension and reactive behavior and still stay engaged.

These are just a few ideas. Perhaps you have others? I’d love to hear about them.

This may sound a bit alarmist to offer ways to feel safe and comfortable with people who are friends and family. These are significant times we are in. We are presented with both challenges AND opportunities for growth. Our resilience, respect, wisdom, compassion and understanding, and a commitment to lasting peace, justice and our highest values, is essential – now more than ever.

Wishing you peace, inner strength and compassion with yourself and others.

From the heart!

Joe