Want to skip Thanksgiving dinner with family? This expert negotiator can help

Traveling to see your family is hazardous at the height of the pandemic. So how can you tell your family you won’t be joining them this year?

Holidays are often fraught with tension, but this year could be unusually tough. A recent study suggests 38% of families plan to gather in groups of 10 people or more this Thanksgiving, with around a third saying they wouldn’t ask others to wear masks. The survey was small, with only 2,000 participants, the majority approving of safety measures – but it is indicative of potential dividing lines this holiday season. To gather, or not to gather?

What if Grandpa doesn’t mind being exposed to potential virus-carriers, but others feel the risks far outweigh the benefits? What if someone in your family doesn’t believe the coronavirus is real?

We have teamed up with an expert negotiator to help with this conundrum. Sheila Heen, who heads up the Harvard Negotiation Project, is an expert in communicating when emotions are running high. She answered our questions.

Sheila, everyone in my family is wrong about how to deal with Thanksgiving during the pandemic. How do I get them to listen to me?

This is hard, because people have different perceptions of risk around the virus. Many of us are hearing our parents, or grandparents saying, “I’m fine with it, please drive up and see me.” Meanwhile, families come pre-sized – some of us have more than 10 family members – which means choosing between breaking the rules or leaving some family members out.

So how do I win people over to my way of thinking?

People always think the first step in a negotiation is to say a lot of things. They prepare talking points, of their wishes and concerns. I’m not saying don’t think of concerns – but that is not what to lead with. Lead with a list of questions about the logistics: who is going to be there, where have they been, who is getting tested, how are they getting there?

Then have a conversation about feelings. Understanding where people feel caught can help you to understand why they are taking such a position. That puts you in a better place: they feel heard, and you understand why they are planning what they are planning. After that, you are in a good position to say, “well, let me say a little about what I’m thinking.”

That wouldn’t be conceding?

We tend to advocate for why we are right during a negotiation, rather than trying to understand why we have different instincts. Why is it that we each think we are right but the answer we each have is different?

Have the conversation about decisions separately. When you’re trying to understand, just think about what you have heard, then talk again in a week to see if you can come up with some better options.

OK. But how do I stop the ‘decision conversation’ from turning into a competition of who is right and who is wrong?

Rather than saying “this is the right answer”, say “this is the best thing I could come up with so far”. Come up with solutions, like having a schedule of things to look forward to that don’t involve everyone being together at the same time. You should be open to others having a better idea, or that, in the end, you may not all agree.

Part of the unspoken debate that goes on underneath a negotiation is: “Who is the good person and the bad person?” As long as the other person hears you saying, “look, you’re the stupid person and I am the smart person,” it’s not going to go well.

And if they are being stupid…?

Giving people leeway is important. We negotiators speak a lot about intention and impact – and [if someone made a mistake], you can say “here is the impact I am worried about”. You can speak to the impact without accusing them of being a bad character.

What if there is someone you are suspicious about in your family? They say they’re taking the virus seriously, but really they are going out partying?

In families, conversations have a lot of history. Whatever roles we have played in the past – the scolding older sister or the irresponsible younger brother – play out in unhelpful ways, stopping us from hearing each other anew. Being aware helps. You can say, “Look I’m not trying to actually tell everybody what to do, even though I am usually very good at that.”

You don’t necessarily have to assume good intentions, because it doesn’t matter. What matters is the risk we are taking if we don’t sort this out.

What about hierarchical issues? Like having to disagree with someone who is supposed to be the adult in the situation – especially your parents?

Saying to aging parents “you’re being foolish and I will decide this for you” may just add to identity issues. They may be thinking, “Do I get to run my own life anymore? Because whether I want to expose myself to the virus should be my decision.” And I think that’s fair.

In terms of leverage, we need to let go of the idea that you can control what everybody else does. That’s hard when it affects you, but we can only make decisions for ourselves. You can decide you are not going to go if you think it is a terrible idea or are worried about your family.

Making the wrong decision might mean somebody gets sick or dies. But others may say, ‘this is the last opportunity we will have to see you’.

One problem is we’re negotiating with regret, with our future selves, the sense that we made the wrong call. Decide what you can tolerate emotionally around regret.

Parents care how you’re going to feel – so saying, “let’s broaden the circle to think about the impact on me and the grandchildren” – might help. On the other hand, you might say to yourself, “I need to reframe what I’m doing. It’s not ‘I was foolish and I killed my parents,” instead it’s “I had the grace to let my parents make decisions for themselves even when I thought they were bad decisions” – because often our parents have done that for us, too.

One mistake is thinking, “how do I have this conversation so that no one will be upset with me?” I don’t think that’s realistic – there’s no way to make bad news good news.

This interview was edited for length and clarity


Poppy Noor

The GuardianTramp

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