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To Survive Difficult Holiday Conversations, Take a Cue From Magic Johnson

December 21, 2017, 6:30 PM UTC

Let’s talk briefly about talking.

We’re well into the season of reunions and get-togethers, sometimes merry, sometimes forced. It can be dicey. Unspoken worries can surface beneath the small talk; turmoil at work, the health of older relatives, the prospects for children, grown yet stalled. For some, it’s a cruel benchmark. This time of year, it can feel like a constant b-roll of your so-called life is running in the background, reminding you of what you don’t have, who you are not. Without loving care, ancient slights can begin to itch.

And that’s in a good year. Things feel particularly fraught these days. Political tensions are high, rhetoric is rough, and families are now coming together with two separate, and often opposing sets of facts.

Two things crossed my path recently that I hope will provide some inspiration as you face your own difficult conversations across the holiday punch bowl.

The first is this touching short video of an extraordinary conversation between NBA legends Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas that aired on NBA TV on Tuesday night. It was an opportunity for the two men to end a long-standing rift, which included Johnson’s successful attempt to bar Thomas from the 1992 U.S. Olympic team.

It was a quiet, elegant, and public exchange that ended with a moment of grace. “You are my brother. Let me apologize if I hurt you, that we haven’t been together and God is good to bring us back together,” said a quavery-voiced Johnson to Thomas, who dissolved into tears.

Once you’ve stopped ugly crying at your desk, then head over to the always excellent BrainPickings for inspiration number two.

In this essay, Maria Popover prepares us for a season of talking past one another with this gentle primer in the elements of effective dialogue – “not the ping-pong of opinions and co-reactivity that passes for dialogue today, but a commitment to mutual contemplation of viewpoints and considered response,” she says. “[T]he dearth of this commitment in our present culture is the reason why we continue to find ourselves sundered by confrontation and paralyzed by the divisiveness of ‘us vs. them’ narratives.”

She elevates several exemplars, Ursula K. Le Guin, along with James Baldwin and Margaret Mead, but settles on physicist David Bohm, whose collected essays, On Dialogue, offer unique insights into what keeps humans from hearing each other. They were written mostly in the 1970s, but feel eerily relevant now:

In spite of this worldwide system of linkages, there is, at this very moment, a general feeling that communication is breaking down everywhere, on an unparalleled scale… What appears [in the media] is generally at best a collection of trivial and almost unrelated fragments, while at worst, it can often be a really harmful source of confusion and misinformation.

What is required, he says, is communication in the service of creating something new, rather than a passionate defense of one’s own, even unexamined, ideas.

For example, consider a dialogue. In such a dialogue, when one person says something, the other person does not in general respond with exactly the same meaning as that seen by the first person. Rather, the meanings are only similar and not identical. Thus, when the second person replies, the first person sees a difference between what he meant to say and what the other person understood. On considering this difference, he may then be able to see something new, which is relevant both to his own views and to those of the other person. And so it can go back and forth, with the continual emergence of a new content that is common to both participants.

Of course, this only works if people feel free to listen to each other, “without prejudice, and without trying to influence each other,” he says, a hard habit to break for many. Dialogue is not always going to be possible – a freeing idea all its own – but if the point of a conversation is not to win, but to create, then better outcomes become more likely. (As always, if you are in a vulnerable place, then you are not under any obligation to have any conversations you’re not ready for.)

But if you can’t be Bohm this season, try to be Magic. Sometimes a humble declaration of truth and love is all you need to restore a relationship gone fallow and move past the b-roll and back into the present. “And just to sit across from you and relive those moments of fun, excellence, working hard, dreaming big,” he said to Thomas. “Who sits up at 19 or 21 dreaming of stuff we wanted to do and now we are here doing it.”

Happy winter solstice. It all gets brighter from here.


Ellen McGirt writes Fortune’s raceAhead, a daily newsletter about race and culture.