Role-Playing Video Emphasizes Structured Talk, Empathy at Holiday Tables

Mariza Izaac is going to be celebrating Thanksgiving with her gay friends in Healdsburg as she has for the last decade or so.

But this year is different: No political talk at the table.

That’s because her host’s parents are evangelicals from the South and he doesn’t want fisticuffs thrown over bites of drumsticks. “We decided no politics at all,” said Izaac, the owner of Rainforest Skin Care in Oakland. “But if they bring it up, I can’t wait. I’m going to say, ‘How can you vote for this man because he has no morals!’”

Izaac is just one of the countless Americans whose holiday celebrations have changed this year, in a post-election world, where Donald Trump was elected president, and more than half the country, in terms of the popular vote, wanted Hillary Clinton in charge. Some families have canceled the holiday parties entirely. In fact, Izaac's friend took off to the Bahamas for Thanksgiving instead of getting together with her husband's family, who have opposite political views from herself. Others have set strict ground rules, especially at gatherings where Uncle John is a Republican, and Cousin Marty is a Democrat.

But the turkey feasts don’t have to be combative, says Traci Ruble of Half Moon Bay, a therapist and founder of Psyched in San Francisco. And she and counterpart, Edwin Rutsch from the Culture of Empathy in El Cerrito, advocate not to nix the holiday meal. Instead, the two put out a role-playing video teaching families how to listen to each other, instead of fighting about Trump’s transition team whether Clinton should have been locked up over her emails. It's pretty personal for Rutsch, as he said he is a gay man going with his partner to his evangelical relatives' for dinner.

“I actually don't believe in ‘no politics,’ rule,” Ruble said. “We think everyone should get five minutes at the table, where everyone gets to speak in a structured conversation. Everyone else has to listen with empathy. What happens when we feel heard? Our nervous system calms down. When somebody understands, even if they don't agree, they feel known.”

That idea, in theory, sounds good to Janice, 52, of San Jose, who did not want her last name to be used for fear of insulting her Trump-supporting in-laws coming in from Florida this week. But how would you actually stop someone if they went passed the five-minute buzzer?

“My daughter said I’m not allowed to even mention Trump,” Janice said, adding she supported Clinton. Janice hasn’t sent out an email with her mandate of no politics, she figures she’ll just bring it up politely if the situation arises. She hopes they can just catch up on family gossip instead.

“It’s too risky to even talk about this sore subject,” Janice said. “Someone always thinks they’re right. I just want to err on the side of caution. You don't want to ruin the day.”

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