An idealistic picture, indeed, but let’s face it: Despite all the gratitude, love and good food, Thanksgiving can also bring anxiety, even dread. A host may be exhausted before dinner guests arrive given her dogged pursuit of perfection with absolutely no help from her husband whose extended family is among the guests! Some of the guests are vegetarian and deserve a feast equal to the traditional menu others are looking forward to (or sometimes demanding), but it’s twice the planning and work.
In-laws, estranged family members, or a college-age grandchild who would rather be elsewhere may show up only because they’re expected. And Grandma seems to be suffering from early stages of dementia; at least that’s the excuse we give for the occasional obtuse comment: “Why aren’t you married yet?”
Then there’s Uncle Harold, who will likely insist on an explanation for why John is now going by Johanna and how the heck is he supposed to know when to say “he”, “she” or “they.” “I’m all for people choosing whatever they want to be, I just wanna know why? Doesn’t it just make things confusing for everybody?”
You get the picture. Thanksgiving, like any day, is filled with uncertainties. But the complexity of a Thanksgiving family gathering increases exponentially with additional factors at play: for example, a) more people are present; b) each person has a unique set of beliefs and point of view; c) each person brings a disposition that reflects what they’ve experienced in the hours before arrival and what they expect to occur in the coming hours.
There are also paradoxical elements at play. For example, an atmosphere of warmth and familiarity that seems to invite “letting it all hang out” is juxtaposed with the assumption of respectful discretion one gives new acquaintances or friends and relatives whom they rarely see. Being aware of complex variables and paradoxical expectations is the first step toward dealing with them gracefully—and generatively.
One thing is fairly certain: Most folks will know little or nothing about Generative Communication. But YOU DO, whether you’re a host or a guest!
You know, for example, that communicating with yourself about your own values and intentions is a good place to start before interacting with others. Maybe it means starting the day in the quiet of your own thoughts, letting yourself feel the sensation of gratitude as you notice the things in your life for which you are truly grateful.
You also know that to get the most out of the day with family and friends, you must be fully present in each moment as it’s happening—despite the craziness.
You recognize that while you have no control over others and what happens, you do have control over yourself—what you think, say, and do—as part of the complex, interactive dynamics of the day. You have learned to notice others, for example, their level of comfort or anxiety. Are people relaxed? Do some appear anxious? Can you relax into your authentic self thus creating a safe space for others be authentic when interacting with you?
Let’s say you reach out to a young person standing alone by the appetizer table who seems anxious, maybe a younger cousin. You learn she’s indeed anxious, but not about the Thanksgiving gathering. She’s afraid she’s flunked a test she’s just taken which will affect her class grade, grade point average and conceivably her scholarship eligibility. She seems relieved to be telling someone about the source of her angst.
We can also look at a more complex example. Greta has noticed an intense conversation in the far corner of the living room between her dad and Uncle Joe that looks interesting, so she wanders over. She suspects they’re comparing notes following the recent election, no doubt lamenting some losses they didn’t expect. Everyone is fully aware that the brothers’ political views are different from Greta’s, although she loves a good spicy conversation and figures she may learn something.
Uncle Joe sees her coming. “Hey, Greta! Good to see you! How the hell are you?” She’s always enjoyed her Uncle Joe. He can make sunshine out of a cloudy day, though he’s also highly opinionated and assumes others should naturally agree with him. After the greeting and hugs, he says, “Your dad and I have been grousing about the election results. Looks like the Dems have convinced people to keep feeding from the trough of socialism!”
“Yes! So many races were close this year! There was a lot to consider on the ballot, not least of which was a woman’s freedom to make choices about her own body—which I favor, by the way.” Greta let that last bit slip out; she’s not sure why, other than to make the conversation more interesting.
“Seriously, you think it’s okay to kill unborn babies? That shocks me, given your upbringing,” Uncle Joe responds, glancing at his brother.
“Oh my, Uncle Joe,” Greta responds, in a light tone. “There is a lot to unpack when it comes to women’s health, miscarriages, and unwanted pregnancies. We couldn’t possibly discuss them all today. I’ve been reading about health issues related to reproductive endocrinology alone, and the last thing we want, or need, is a ban on all abortions.”
Uncle Joe is momentarily mute, perhaps giving thought to Greta’s comment. Perhaps not.
Greta signals her intention to move toward her cousins sitting on the nearby sofa. “I’m just thankful we live in a country where open conversations about difficult issues are welcomed! Love you, Uncle Joe.” Greta gives her uncle a peck on the cheek, her dad a wink, and moves on.
Greta chose not to take the bait her uncle threw her way, though it was tempting. She’d asked for it with her comment, but he made an issue of the moral implications on her behalf. Greta had been studying the topic enough to know that many people without medical knowledge had strong moral opinions without the faintest clue of complex variables surrounding the health issues related to unwanted pregnancies. Greta also knew that two (or more) points of view that seem opposite can be true at the same time with deeper exploration and understanding, though she wasn’t about to invest the time with Uncle Joe. Greta knew she wasn’t going to change her uncle’s mind, but she had been able to manage herself by communicating her position with a reference to why without feeling defensive or angry.
Whether you’re a host or guest, you can ask questions to help generative conversations get started, prompting people to have fun being together and discussing things they’ve never thought much about before. If one question goes nowhere, casually ask another until something happens. Don’t be in a hurry if responses don’t come immediately. Sometimes people need to think for a moment before they speak.
As a host, when you call guests to be seated, your family tradition might call for a prayer of thanksgiving, a poem, a toast, or some other gesture to welcome the occasion. You might add a comment about “the generative conversations we are about to have with one another.” For example, you might suggest that no topic is off-limits so long as each person listens carefully to the other and learns about a point of view different than their own.
Of course, it’s always smart to have a few questions up your sleeve that you’ve composed with your family and friends in mind.
Here are some questions to get you started.