The holidays are the perfect time to reconnect with family and friends. Unfortunately, this is also the time when feuds brew and dinner parties are ruined when controversial topics boil over.
In my family, we generally agree that discussions of politics are prohibited and that any political signs are removed before holiday gatherings to ensure everyone is comfortable.
A Virginia Tech expert offers tips on how to better manage conversations around contentious issues.
“Nobody wants the holidays to be unpleasant, but they can quickly become unpleasant in these polarized times,” Todd Schenk, associate professor at Virginia Tech School of Public and International Affairs, said in a press release. “Family members often disagree on important issues such as climate change, immigration, election integrity, crime and abortion.”
Schenk explained that while many may try to avoid these conversations, it’s often only a matter of time before they happen.
“Civil discourse around issues provides the clearest path to shared learning and increased empathy,” Schenk said. “It is also essential if we seek to be persuasive; changing an opinion is really difficult, but practically impossible through insults and contradictory approaches.
When those conversations do eventually arise, Schenk offers the following tips for making the conversations interesting.
“Being thoughtful about when and how to bring up sensitive topics is key to having productive conversations,” Schenk said. “We often fall into ‘hot topic’ discussions, but I would suggest explicitly seeking agreement between the parties that you’re going to ‘go for it’ and perhaps setting aside a time to do so.”
Schenk notes that the dinner table after a hearty meal and a few drinks may not be the most productive space for these conversations. Creating the time and space to have these conversations can be critical when discussing issues that matter deeply to you and your loved ones. Additionally, it can be helpful to establish ground rules such as “no personal insults” and “no interruptions”.
“Ideally, the parties involved will agree to approach the conversation with genuine curiosity and respect for each other’s personalities and perspectives,” Schenk said.
Schenk also points out that using “active listening” techniques can be the key to productive conversations.
Active listening involves:
- Listen to understand and not respond
- Ask clarifying and probing questions
- Speak of the “I” and avoid the “you”
- Ask problems, not people
- Provide data and information, as appropriate
- Share personal experiences, as appropriate;
- Aim to speak honestly
- Being aware of how you communicate, verbally and non-verbally
- Communicate with a healthy level of respect
- Make space and take space
- Approach discomfort with curiosity
With these tips in mind, family gatherings can not only be fun and relaxing, but also safe spaces for sharing thoughts and feelings about the world around us.