Tips for Surviving Thanksgiving (aka “Compassion”)

Last Thanksgiving, the NYTimes published an unusually good op-ed on an unusually fraught subject: how to survive Thanksgiving with difficult relatives. Written by Henry Alford, it began something like this:

Like you, I have often wondered, “How might a hostage negotiator help the average American family get through Thanksgiving?”

I’ve had this thought not because of my own brood — we Alfords are a wholly agreeable lot, whose emotional vicissitudes take the form of a lot of muffled, Protestant sobbing — but rather because so many reports I receive of others’ holiday gatherings sound like football scrimmages subtitled by David Mamet. Surely these are matters for professionals who’ve received months of intensive training in crisis intervention?

“Just shut up and listen,” said Frederick J. Lanceley, the F.B.I.’s former senior negotiator and former principal director of its negotiation course, when asked how to get two parties who are at odds with each other to cooperate at the holiday dinner table. “People want to be heard. They want the attention.”

Mr. Lanceley said that during his 26 years with the F.B.I., his active listening skills caused perpetrators in various cases to confess, to ask if they could write him from jail or to even offer him a job. Mr. Lanceley advocated the following course of action: “Repeating what the other person says, we call that paraphrasing. ‘So what you’re telling me is that the F.B.I. screwed you over by doing this and that,’ and then you repeat back to him what he said. Also, emotional labeling: ‘You sound like you were hurt by that.’ ‘You sound like it must have been really annoying.’ Little verbal encouragements: ‘Unh-huh,’ ‘Mm-hmm.’ A nod of the head to let them know you’re there.”

Great column, highly recommended (despite a dull title): Crisis Negotiators Give Thanksgiving Tips


I was so impressed I wrote in, mentioning a poem (and song) on my mind at the time, and to my startlement, the paper went on to publish the letter at the head of a column of responses.

Kit Stolz

Upper Ojai CA 23 November 2014

Fascinating — some of the ideas (such as addressing first “presenting” and then “underlying” emotions) reminds me very much of a theory of communication to surmount conflicts known as “Non-Violent Communication.”

Also reminds me of a poem by Miller Williams, recently recast into song by his daughter Lucinda, which begins: “Have compassion for everyone you meet/even if they don’t want it/what seems like conceit, bad manners, or cynicism is always a sign/no ears have heard, no eyes have seen…”

So, on this day of sharing, let me share my admiration for that great poem again. Here’s Lucinda’s version:


Published by Kit Stolz

I'm a freelance reporter and writer based in Ventura County.

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