I’ve been there, and maybe you have, too. You gather with family around the table for a delicious meal at Thanksgiving or Christmas. After you pray, everyone passes around dishes of delicious food. Perhaps an uncle makes the traditional toast that’s followed by cheers and clinking wine glasses. But, just as you’re beginning to enjoy the meal, things get tense.
Someone turns the conversation to a sticky topic. More than likely, it’s either religion or politics. If your family is anything like mine, there are varied opinions from everyone around the table. Sometimes someone makes a snarky comment. A lively discussion that sometimes borders on making others feel on edge or uncomfortable ensues.
The reality of our present culture is that a divisive tone is all too present in conversations about hot topics. Sometimes it can feel like respectful dialogue or listening are ideas that we have completely disregarded. It is okay to disagree and have different opinions or beliefs with those we love. However, when we lose a basic sense of decency and respect for the other over the course of a conversation, that presents a greater problem.
How can we handle tricky situations when they arise around the family table this holiday season? Here are a few things to keep in mind that I have learned from my own wins, mistakes, and experiences with my extended family members during the holidays.
Remember that you’re talking to someone you love
Too often in heated conversations, it’s easy to get caught up in the topic at hand so much so that you forget the person you’re having a conversation with. If you strongly disagree with someone, it’s important to remember that the person across the table is someone you love. They’re also someone who loves you.
You may not necessarily like this person in the moment. But remember that you love them.
You can disagree with a person over an issue or topic, but always keep in mind the actual person with whom you are having the conversation. Keeping this in mind helps you navigate the sticky subject with grace.
Listen in order to be heard
The interesting thing about being heard by someone else is that you first have to hear them.
Validating someone else doesn’t require you to agree with them. However, it does let them know that you acknowledge their point of view. A big part of this is listening with curiosity to understand why this opinion or belief is so important to someone.
It can also be helpful to not use the jargon from your own point of view. Instead, use common language and terms that sides can share and recognize. If the person you are talking with does not feel like they have been heard, they will not soften to hear what you are saying.
Set healthy boundaries
If you know there is a person (or people!) in your family that sometimes can get into tricky, messy-feeling conversations, it is absolutely okay to prepare ahead of time by setting healthy boundaries.
An important thing to remember here is to know when to end a conversation. Sometimes it is even more important to know when to not start a conversation in the first place. If a family member tries to engage in a conversation and you sense it is not a good idea to go there, you can gently set a boundary in a way that doesn’t make them feel rejected. One way to do this is by diverting the conversation to a more neutral topic like asking to see recent baby pictures or house remodel is going.
How have you handled situations like this at your own family gatherings?
What has worked well or has not worked so well for you in the past?