Nine Tips to Navigate Sensitive Family Conversations During the Holidays
Family gatherings can make wonderful memories – or create fights that drive people away for years. These events are particularly prone to conflict when family members fall on opposite sides of the political or ideological spectrum. How do you navigate these potentially dangerous waters and keep everyone friends? Just as importantly, how can you use these occasions to bring people closer to shared common values, planting seeds for more understanding and cooperation.
- First, be reasonable in your expectations. Don’t expect conversations or sudden changes of heart (although this can happen). You will probably not reconcile the beliefs of the conspiracy theorist with the progressive. Don’t try. Your goal is not to change their beliefs. It is to create common ground for mutual respect and civility.
- At every opportunity, emphasize your shared values. “I’m so glad our family is together. We have such a tradition of love and wonderful memories.” Continue this theme in your Thanksgiving prayers and conversations. “I’m so grateful for everyone here, and those who could not be here, and for the affection we have for everyone.” If people are going to trust and listen, they must first feel appreciated. Psychologists call this “unconditional positive regard.” With this approach, you are validating your family members, and creating a foundation of commonality around very important life values and experiences.
- If current events come up, or issues like social justice or the economy, try to keep the conversation focused on the big picture. What is it that we’d like to see happen? What is the ideal situation that we’d like to achieve?
- Use terminology that is neutral and universally accepted. We’d all like to be safe, be financially secure, live in a just society, have safe, happy, children and families.
- Avoid talking about people and personalities; instead switch to policies and programs. There is no way you or anyone can defend an individual or their actions, or convince anyone that someone they admire doesn’t deserve their respect. If personalities come up, re-focus on a program they are involved in, or one that you can talk about based on principles and values.
- Go below the surface to ask, “This seems really important to you. Tell me more about your thoughts/feelings on X.” “What would you ideally like to see happen?” “Do you see a way for that to occur?” As people open up and speak at more depth, you will probably find some common interests or even beliefs.
- Disinformation is rife in our society, and many people are convinced by this disinformation into believing with all their hearts, things that are just not true. Don’t attack these beliefs or statements. Instead, respond,” That’s interesting. Where did you hear that?” Then, “What convinced you that this was true?” After listening, you can offer another option. “Here’s what I heard/read about that.” *
- You may have noticed that these recommendations advise a lot of listening. People want to be heard. If they are listened to with respect, they are much more likely to listen to you. If a person responds with a statement, “How can you say that?” “That’s crazy,” “That’s stupid,” “So and so is an idiot,” communication stops and arguments begin. Thoughtfully listening and processing someone’s opinion before responding lets them know that you care about what they think. When you respond with deliberation with your own perspective, they are much more likely to listen to you. Positive comments rarely offend people. Negative comments almost always upset someone.
- Finally, circling back to re-affirming your family values, bring the conversation back to how you can express and live those values as a family. “We love our children so much. Maybe this holiday season we can get together to do something for the children who may be in less fortunate circumstances.” “This meal was so delicious. Maybe we could spend some time helping other families who are hungry, enjoy a Christmas dinner.” Bringing family members together in acts of service will help form bonds to last another generation.
Practicing listening, providing unconditional positive regard, and bringing everyone together in common themes and values will help avoid conflict and build bridges for understanding, now and in the future.
* As a point of fact, information on social media can be incorrect and there are no consequences for those putting out this information. “Traditional” media is bound to fact-check their information; if it is incorrect, they can be sued. Consequently, if traditional media constantly published “fake news,” they would have been shut down long ago.
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