Religion, sex and politics are off limits.
At least, that’s what it was like at the dinner table for Dr. Bonnie Glass-Coffin, author of “Lessons in Courage” and “The Gift of Life.” Glass-Coffin said that for her family, discussions beyond “buttered peas” were off limits.
But according to Dr. Anne Fishel of The Family Dinner Project, there is power in “table talk” to enrich the dialogue in one’s relationships.
This may be difficult as many might agree that having conversations in today’s age can be emotionally hazardous. Not everyone is guaranteed to like what is being said.
When trying to have conversations, Glass-Coffin said that using healthy communication techniques and understanding can go a long way in forming better discussion habits.
Glass-Coffin studied Peruvian shamans for more than 30 years and was inspired to lead a life that helps others build metaphorical bridges.
A Divided America
There are so many things that divide Americans — the economy, religious beliefs and political leanings — but the things that bring Americans together are often overlooked. Learning how to have healthy conversations is the first step in finding meaning and compromise in relationships with conflicting ideals.
“We have to get rid of that imposed prohibition at the dinner table,” said Glass-Coffin.
She added that learning how to better communicate can lead to happier familial relationships and a better sense of meaning in one’s life.
The Pew Research Center conducted two separate surveys in late 2017 regarding life fulfillment. The first asked U.S. adults to describe what makes their lives feel meaningful, fulfilling or satisfying. The second survey was a set of closed-ended questions asking adults to rate how much meaning they received from 15 possible sources.
The popular answer from both surveys was simple and clear: Americans say that family is the thing that gives them the most meaning in life.
So why can familial relationships be some of the hardest relationships to navigate in 2019?
Pew discovered that while family is important to most Americans, there are a plethora of sources that also provide meaning to Americans’ life. Answers included careers, money, faith, friends, health, hobbies and learning. With so many different things important to different people, one can see why forming understanding around these things can be difficult. Simply, some individuals value different things.
Glass-Coffin said that when having conversations, individuals need to approach them as curious learners.
“Life can be more interesting and rewarding if we just listen, ask a curious question and engage in dialogue rather than debate,” Glass-Coffin said.
Pew found that Americans with higher incomes find friendships, health and travel as important sources of meaning. Those with lower incomes are more likely to say that stability is important to them.
Evangelicals and black Americans are the most likely to find religion as a source of meaning, while atheists find meaning in activities and finances. In 2019, younger Americans also are finding less meaning in religion.
Although politically conservative Americans often find meaning in religion, liberals tend to find meaning in creativity and philanthropic causes.
“It’s about finding a common ground,” Glass-Coffin said. “Not everyone cares about religion as much as they do politics, or the other way around. However, I think we want to talk to each other, but a lot of times we just don’t know how.”
How to Have Healthy Conversations
At Utah State University, Professor Clair Canfield teaches interpersonal communication classes as well as communication and conflict lectures. Canfield explained that understanding the differences in one another is important to ultimately communicating in healthy ways.
“Conflict washes ashore in all of our relationships,” Canfield said in his TedxUSU talk from 2016 titled “The Beauty of Conflict.”
“Sometimes communication just seems to make it worse,” Canfield said. “The advice we get tends to treat conflict as a problem, but what if conflict is the solution? A thing of beauty?”
Canfield picked up this topic again with The Herald Journal.
“How we talk about conflict is pretty important,” Canfield said. “It’s safe to say that the reason communication can be so hard is that we do a bad job at it.”
Canfield said that people are in a rush to be understood. The tendency in a conversation is for an individual to try and make the other person see them and that it is important to listen first, ask questions and try to understand rather than just getting angry. In most cases, calling names or believing that someone is inferior comes from not wanting to try and connect.
“A lot of people aren’t open to understanding the other party, so they close off or get angry and defensive, especially with social media because it’s easier to dehumanize people when you don’t see them.
“We care so much that we want to make other people agree, and we try to control them,” Canfield said. “When we try to control someone, that’s objectifying them.”
Introducing the Dunning-Kruger Effect
Charles Darwin wrote in his book “The Descent of Man” that “ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”
The Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in psychology that allows for individuals to believe their thinking is correct when everyone else in the room knows that they are wrong.
David Dunning and Justin Kruger are two social psychologists who first described this psychological phenomenon.
In their studies, they found that there is a social aspect to the phenomenon. They found that women performed equally as well as men on a science quiz, and yet women underestimated their performance while men were overconfident.
Dunning and Kruger suggested that some people have an inability to recognize lack of skill or their own mistakes. Some are unable to look outside themselves. And for some, a little knowledge can lead to overconfidence.
According to Dunning and Kruger’s 1999 paper, every single person on this planet is susceptible to this effect.
The ability to question what an individual knows combats confirmation bias. Asking good questions and being a curious learner helps individuals gain better communication skills and admit when they are wrong.
“Understanding about conflict doesn’t remove it from your life,” Canfield said. “Close proximity to people leads to desires and unmet needs, which create conflict.”
According to Canfield, the way to combat unhealthy dialogue is by thinking about the future and what desired outcome one wants. If it is to eventually be happy, contentious dialogue won’t help.
“Willingness is a currency in conflict,” Canfield said. “I know these are difficult conversations, but they are important, and most of the time people are communicating the best that they know how.”
Religion and politics working together
Meg Vail is a pastor for the First Presbyterian Church. Discussing religion and promoting relationships with God, family and one’s religion is something she tackles daily.
“Churches and worshiping are relationship organizations,” Vail said. “We tend to cast people as ‘others’ rather than focusing on shared human experiences, but churches and worshiping communities are hopefully always focusing on the ‘others.’”
Vail said that Jesus is the best example of building relationships, and his followers should intentionally be creating welcoming and diverse places.
Vail acknowledged that religion can be a source for contention for some.
“In my experience with religion, we are interpreters of the Bible,” Vail said. “We can never read scriptures objectively, so it is important to create opportunities for different voices and different groups to get together and read sacred texts.”
Vail explained that a migrant who has come to a different country will always have a different take on the Bible than someone who has lived in the same place in comfort all their lives, just as an example.
In Utah, a source of contention in families sometimes comes from feelings of worthiness among different belief systems.
“There is never a time for me when a person is not worthy,” Vail said. “God loves us no matter what, so why wouldn’t our family?”
Vail said that religion isn’t an escape from the outside world and that not only should families be having difficult conversations, so should churches.
“My community of faith should be socially involved in the community,” Vail said. “This doesn’t mean enacting change for other people, but hopefully our religious organizations aren’t escapes. God and religion equips us to be more politically and socially involved.”
Vail said that it is important when families are taking different political stances that those stances are coming from their own personal experiences and beliefs.
“They should still discuss them with one another and help each other understand why those beliefs are important to them,” Vail said. “It is important to me that churches aren’t dividing members by political affiliation but rather are fostering healthy and safe dialogue.”
A broader understanding of relationship dynamics
In 2020, another presidential election year will come. In 2019, campaigning is already ramping up.
Last year, NBC News reported that the effect of partisanship and political advertising hurt close family ties. Instead of repeating recent history, individuals may want to arm themselves with healthy communication skills.
“It makes life richer,” Glass-Coffin said. “Why do we have to agree? We may never agree. Non-attachment to the outcome is key to healthy discussions.”
Glass-Coffin said that the point is “to develop and deepen connections with the people we love. Social media doesn’t foster healthy connections if we don’t speak kindly.”
She said that fostering kindness, compassion and curiosity leads us to deeper connections.
“Don’t be afraid to enter brave spaces and have more authentic conversations,” Glass-Coffin said. “I missed out on a lot because my mother was afraid to have difficult dialogues at the dinner table. It starts there.”
Canfield said that he no longer sees conflict as negative because he understands how to better communicate.
“It’s a chrysalis of change. It’s a doorway of opportunity,” Canfield said. “It’s the first ray of light after a dark night. What do you want it to be for you?”