Navigating Family Conflict During the Holidays

Nov 20, 2023

For many, the holidays are not a particularly joyous time. One reason for this is anxiety about disagreement and conflict at family gatherings and events. Political and cultural polarizations in society are intruding into nuclear and extended families, and the potential for arguments and discord is high. Fortunately, there are tools we can use to make family gatherings go smoothly as intended.

  • Set your intention. What is your reason for gathering anyway? Presumably, it is to be together, connect, and share time together. Set your intention that this is the purpose of the dinner, not to discuss politics or change peoples’ minds.
  • Be proactive. Perhaps start with some ground rules, things “we’re not here to talk about.” Adopt a friendly and collaborative tone, and include everyone here.
  • Start with gratitude. A simple exercise like stating what we’re grateful for can set the tone and take things in the right direction. Set the example by expressing gratitude for family and friends.

If disagreement does emerge, try these conversational tactics:

  • The process starts with you. When you hear an opinion that you don’t like or don’t agree with, ask yourself what story you’re telling yourself. Common ones are – Uncle Lou is a bigot, Uncle Lou doesn’t understand, Uncle Lou is not working with the right information, and Uncle Lou is stupid. Any and all of these are presumptive and conflictual in themselves. Accept that your story is probably part of the problem.
  • Seek to understand first. What is important to Uncle Lou, and how does he feel? If possible, connect on the emotion – worry, anxiety, and fear are common ones that we possibly all share.
  • Look for things to agree on and ask for more information. “Yeah, I’ve been worried about the economy too. What part of it bothers you the most?”
  • Remain authentic, but don’t argue. “Yeah, the situation is definitely problematic, but I think I might see it differently. But you know, I’m not sure I fully understand your position, can you say a bit more?” Listen again and repeat the process. You can perhaps agree that it’s emotional or it’s hard to know where to get good information. Perhaps you don’t have to share your opinion. Once Uncle Lou feels heard, he’ll probably move on. Remember that when people keep repeating themselves, the reason is that they don’t feel heard.

When all is said and done, it’s important to return to your intention: the purpose is to be together, not to change Uncle Lou’s mind. You probably can’t, anyway!

By Russ Turner, Training Institute Director