The holidays are upon us, bringing good food, great cheer…and the occasional awkward conversation around the family dinner table. Gathering with family and friends we haven’t seen for a while is one of the season’s blessings, but it can also surface difficult conversations and differences of opinion—particularly as the United States finds itself growing ever more ideologically divided around topics like immigration.
40% of Americans say their family tries to avoid political discussions, and that number increases when family members share different views. Immigration, for example, is an extremely hot-button issue and has been at the center of much debate both between and within political parties. But at Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, we believe the hardest conversations can be the most fruitful.
Talking about refugee and immigrant rights is not just important—it has the potential to be lifesaving. That’s why we’ve put together a holiday conversation guide to help our supporters prepare for these difficult dinner table conversations.
1. Actively Listen
To effectively understand where our friends or family are coming from, we must commit ourselves to truly hearing what they have to say. This requires us to listen not with the purpose of responding but with the purpose of understanding.
The following actions can help you to practice active listening:
- Paraphrase. To be sure you received the speaker’s intended meaning, try summarizing what you just heard. Productive sentence starters include: “What I hear you saying is…” “Would it be right to say… (you see things in this way)?” “It sounds like…”
- Ask open-ended questions. Questions allow us to both learn from those we’re speaking with and demonstrate our interest in their perspective. As long as we ask questions born out of curiosity and not intended to create “Gotcha!” moments, we push the conversation forward and offer ourselves up for growth. Potential questions include: “Do you think ___ is related to ____?” “How do you think that came to be?” “What do you think a better plan/solution/policy would be?” “How do you think we can account for…?”
- Be mindful of body language. Sometimes, your body can say it all even when you haven’t opened your mouth. Try leaning forward, maintaining eye contact, and keeping your body open with your arms uncrossed.
2. Listen for Common Ground
If your friends and family are still in your life, odds are that you share something in common: your morals, your values, or even just your history. Start from a place of acknowledging what you share, which may help you understand how they’ve reached the conclusion you disagree with—and vice versa. By establishing common ground, you are also opening the possibility that they can follow the path from the values you share to your conclusion. Whether or not they come to agree with it, they are able to reconcile your perspective with their perspective.
3. Ground Your Statements in Stories
Facts can be disputed, as can expert opinions and data, but personal experiences belong to the one sharing them. Sharing stories and the emotions tied to them reminds the listener of our humanity and asks them to join us in a moment of vulnerability.
We should also represent our opinions as uniquely our own, positioning them as personal truths rather than facts. Employ “I statements” — “I think,” “I feel,” “I hope/want” — to include yourself in the picture and allow space for the other person.
4. Accept When You Should Leave It
Just as you must make the decision to listen to, empathize with, and value another person’s perspective, that person must also make the choice to engage with you. If you find things getting heated to the point that the conversation is no longer productive, it’s best to just set it aside for the moment. Thank them for the conversation, but be firm in your decision to end it.
5. Do Your Research
We encourage you to use the resources below to learn about laws affecting immigrants, familiarize yourself with their experiences, and get up-to-date information about the issues. This will allow you to address misconceptions and speak with greater confidence. Know, though, that you don’t have to be an expert—ultimately, your views are rooted in shared humanity and the inherent dignity of all people (which, conveniently, should make it easier to have conversations with those you disagree with).
Resources for Having Difficult Conversations About Immigration
- Add these books to your shelf and listen to LIRS CEO Krish O’Mara Vignarajah interview some of the authors.
- Read this short explanation of why people immigrate.
- Watch these inspiring and informative movies, which uplift stories of immigrants and refugees.
- Learn more about climate displacement and the vulnerable populations seeking refuge from climate disasters.
- Visit the LIRS YouTube Channel to hear stories directly from immigrants and former refugees who are making a new home in the United States.
- Watch this short video about the current trends in global displacement.
- Participate in Gather, our annual program highlighting the culture, beauty, and difficulties in one of the nations from which we resettle refugees.
- Learn more about the difference between refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants.
- Explore the LIRS blog for stories of immigrants, refugees and current policies which impact them.