The phrase “talking turkey” usually refers to speaking frankly, discussing hard facts, or getting down to business. “Turkey” by itself has a number of meanings. Of course, it’s known primarily as the big-feathered awkward bird almost 90% of Americans enjoy during their Thanksgiving feast. While taking home a turkey is considered a brag-worthy feat, being called one is not. It’s considered an insult.

Today there’s a lot of “talking turkey,” especially in boardrooms, congressional hearings and in political debates – one more reason why, on Thanksgiving, it is nice to just sit back and eat the turkey.

This year many of us can be thankful for being alive and for the support we have found in one another. But how do you sit back, relax and enjoy talking in especially trying times like these? Our country is pretty divided but does our family dinner or Zoom call have to be?

I’m glad you asked.

One of the ways to get at the answer is to consider our surrounding culture: Is it task-based or relationship-based? In dominant American culture it is so much the former. We can get so caught up in our to-do lists, sometimes it doesn’t even occur to slow down and listen to one another. Yet, as human beings we have a deep need for human connection. When we don’t take the time to connect with ourselves and one another, we can feel isolated and alone, even in a crowded room.

How to connect

To connect with another, people need to “see” the other by accepting their feelings and experience as legitimate, even if that experience is different from their own.

If family or friends bring up a topic that feels hurtful to you, you can slow down, notice your feelings and name them to yourself. Even if they get your ire up, notice how they’ve struck a chord, acknowledge your internal reaction and temporarily hold off from expressing it out loud. Let them finish talking. How you feel is information. So is what they’re saying. While they’re talking, imagine how they feel. When they’re finished, you can name that emotion you sense they feel. You don’t have to agree with their opinion or even completely understand, but you can affirm their feelings about their experience. You could say:

  • “It sounds like you’re mad.”
  • “That must have been tough.”
  • “It’s disappointing when someone doesn’t get it.”

It can also help to learn more about where they are coming from. Many times we do not feel compassion for another person until they have told us more about their experience. With a posture of curiosity, we can gently request more information. We can ask:

  1. “Could you tell me what happened?”
  2. “Would you mind telling me your story?”
  3. “I would like to hear more about your experience if you’re willing to share.”

What I learned

Here is what I recently learned from a client’s employee. I was doing an IDI®* Debrief with a young military veteran who recently retired after completing two tours of duty in Afghanistan. When I heard his background, I thanked him for his service. He didn’t respond; we moved to another topic. Later on in the conversation, I asked if he’d mind telling me more about his experience in the military. As I listened, I could not imagine what it was like to be so far from home, in such a vastly different place, fighting for your life day in and day out for almost a year. The experience had not left him in a good place. After he related his story, he told me he had not spoken much about it until this point. He said he was feeling relieved and thanked me for the work I was doing.

He went on to explain that it hurts when people thank him for his service because he struggles with the fact that there are people in the military whose lives are not compromised (like the cook back at camp who makes lousy scrambled eggs) but people thank them using the exact same words.

I said, “It must be tough; it must feel like your experience is being dismissed.” He nodded.

I told him I was sorry I’d used words that felt dismissive. He said it was ok, but I knew I could do better. I thanked him for teaching me and said, “It sounds like, if I thank someone for their military service, I have an opportunity to learn how those words impact the person. I’ll be able to say, ‘I want to thank you for your service to our country’ while also asking, ‘How do my words impact you?’ Then maybe they’ll feel safe to tell me more about their experience.” He said that would be good.

At our family or work gatherings, we can “talk turkey,” or speak plainly, with one another. We just need to do it in a way that honors the other person’s experience and as well as our own. No one’s experience should be diminished, no one needs to feel invisible. We need to acknowledge this for ourselves, too.

To be heard though, I’ve discovered that I have to be willing to hear the other person out first. When I learn their story and hear about their experience, though I may not agree with their politics or be able to relate to their experience, I can affirm their feelings as legitimate. It may take a few minutes or 15 minutes, but after I hear a person out, they often want to then hear my story. Together, we can then develop a shared understanding, both differentiating and integrating our ideas.

Working together to develop a shared understanding is cultural intelligence in action. Cultural intelligence (CI) is the ability to adjust your behavior to show genuine respect for another within their context. Whether or not you agree or can even imagine what they have gone through, you can affirm their feelings about their experience. CI allows us to stand in solidarity with another, communicating you are not alone. Listening and affirming another’s experience is one of the greatest gifts we can give each other, not just during the holiday season but throughout the year.

So if you find yourself needing to talk turkey at work to boost morale and productivity or at home to resolve a conflict before it ever gets started, follow the recipe above and send me an email on the results. -Amy Narishkin, PhD

Who do you know in your network that would like to learn more about how to be a compassionate leader at home or work? Please share the link with them.