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grounded, centered, truthful, grateful

By Janet Casson

TUE NOV 23, 2021

Dear ones,

I've been reminded in recent conversations, articles, even out-of-office replies that our upcoming national holiday is full of complexity.

This Thanksgiving, I hope you are able to take time to consider this. To explore the "Yes...and...!" of it.

Yes, it is an opportunity to celebrate with loved ones. I hope you are able to do so.

And it is a day of mourning for many of our fellow citizens on whose ancestral land we, in North America, reside and whose culture continues to suffer severely at the hands of white dominant culture.

Let us not forget. Let us make space for ourselves and others to reside in this duality; not mired in guilt or ignorance, rather acknowledging the truth of the holiday's origin and how it impacts each of us differently and potently.

I am thankful for you and your presence with me on this journey.

If you'd like an opportunity to breathe and move this Thanksgiving morning, do it! Get creative in how, where and with whom. Opportunities abound! I plan to join my friend Elissa for a virtual Thanksgiving Day yoga class. I highly recommend that you do the same.

Finally, I would like to share some wisdom that came to me by way of my friend and teacher, Margi Young, thanks to Oren Jay Sofer. He is a teacher of mindfulness, meditation and Nonviolent Communication in secular and Buddhist contexts.

Five Ways to Have Better Holiday Conversations

Old habits, unresolved tensions, and the stress of the season can make family gatherings a messy affair. Here are a few tips for steering clear of an argument, enjoying your time, or simply staying sane with family.

1. Choose a wise intention

One of the most powerful ways to stay grounded in any conversation is to set a clear intention ahead of time. Intention is about how we show up and engage, rather than what we want out of a conversation. What values do you want to embody this holiday season? Some helpful intentions include to be curious, patient, or kind; to relax and have fun, to focus on the good in others, or to stay connected to oneself. 

Choose a word or phrase for your intention, then think of an image or memory that represents this quality. For example, if your intention is to be flexible, you might think of a tree bending in the wind and returning to upright. Before and during the conversation, recall your intention and image as often as you need. 

2. Ask better questions; practice deep listening

Conversations can have a way of meandering into useless banter or contentious territory. Come prepared to holiday gatherings with some topics you believe would be engaging and questions that uplift.

Here are a few of my favorites questions to connect and draw out the good in others: What brings you joy these days? What have you done for fun lately? What’s an important lesson you learned this year? 

When you ask a question (or introduce a topic), really listen. Quiet your mind and give the other person your undivided attention. Listen not only to their words, but to what’s in their heart. Try to get curious about what matters to them. Can you connect with something they care about? 

3. Structure the conversation

One of the most common questions I receive in my communication classes is, “How do I deal with others who leave no space in the conversation?” In the culture I grew up in, speaking over one another is common, even an expression of enthusiasm! As someone who enjoys more space in dialogue, this has always been hard for me. 

One strategy to shift this pattern in a group setting is to introduce some structure for a period of time, either by suggesting an activity or playing a game. For example, before a meal, invite each person take a turn naming something they’re grateful for, while others listen. Or, invite a few people to each share something about themselves or their life that others don’t know. You can also add structure by playing a game, which shifts the group’s focus of attention and can interrupt habitual tendencies.

4. Know your limits

Another way to stay oriented during conversations is to reflect beforehand on your limits. If we’re clear about what we are and are not willing to talk about, what kinds of behaviors we’ll let slide and which ones we plan to call out, it’s easier to relax because we’re not continually recalibrating our boundaries.

One important function of communication training is to bring more awareness, choice and flexibility to our conversations. I want all of us to develop the capacity to be aware of what’s happening inside, and to make more conscious choices about what we say. 

Perhaps arguing about politics, COVID or climate science isn’t how you want to spend the holidays. You may do enough of that already, or have reason to believe that it’s a waste of energy with certain relatives. On the other hand, you may be equally clear about confronting racist, xenophobic or other supremacist comments. If you expect to encounter situations where you need to set a limit, memorize a few phrases you can use in the moment to express your values.

5.  Be present and recall impermanence

Conversations are complicated. Relationships are messy, especially with family! You can find balance amidst the tangle of old habits and family patterns by cultivating a felt awareness of change. 

Everything passes, the beautiful moments and the excruciating ones alike. Remembering how short life is brings more perspective. Knowing that everything is changing, that this too will soon be memory, helps us to cherish the sweet moments, and to bear gracefully the painful ones.