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A Therapist’s Advice: 5 Ways to Navigate Fraught Conversations with Family These tips may help avoid a recipe for holiday disaster

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Above image credit: Udo Keppler's drawing "Thanksgiving Toast" illustrates well how holiday dinners can be when family members with differing views come together. (Library of Congress)
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4 minute read

During the holidays, some recipes are more difficult to perfect than others.

Add two siblings fresh from liberal arts college, one conservative uncle, and one mother who just wants everyone to get along. Gently fold in years of pent up frustration and spread evenly over the events of one of the most contentious years in recent history. Serve piping hot.

Despite the most valiant efforts to keep politics off of the dinner table, it seems almost certain that current events will come up at family gatherings this holiday season. Political divisions have been deepening, and after 2020 people might be more entrenched in their views than any other point in their lifetime. 

Does this mean that impassioned arguments followed by broken plates and slammed doors have to be inevitable? Not according to the experts. Here are five tips from Kansas City marriage and family therapist Katrina Stoddard on navigating difficult family conversations with grace. 

Katrina Stoddard, a Kansas City marriage and family therapist, gives advice on how to weather tough conversations this holiday season
Katrina Stoddard, a Kansas City marriage and family therapist, gives advice on how to weather tough conversations this holiday season. (Contributed)


“Try to think of situations that might arise so you’re not surprised,” Stoddard said. 

Take a moment to reflect on who will be at the dinner table and what topics might come up. If you’re there with a partner or friend, come up with a code that you can use to signal that you need rescuing. The two of you can even come up with an exit strategy beforehand in case things get especially hairy.

Be calm and patient

“Research shows that we do much better in difficult situations when we’re calm,” Stoddard said.

Pay attention to your body’s physiological responses to what’s going on. A racing heart, rising temperature and shaking hands might be indicators that you need to regain control of your body. Stoddard said the best way to do that is through soothing self-talk.  

Self-talk is our inner dialogue, and it holds a lot of power. Stoddard said it’s important to realize what you’re telling yourself. Is it a panicked monologue about how insensitive your family is, thus triggering your fight or flight response? If this starts to happen, positivity is key. Shift your tone. Start to tell yourself, ‘We got this. This person loves me. Everything is fine.” In addition, Stoddard said to speak in a soft voice. Through giving our bodies external cues that everything is fine, we can influence our own physiological reactions. 

Think of who you are talking to 

Remember. This is a person that you love, and they love you. 

Everyone has experienced the feeling of hot shame creeping up their necks after blurting out something spiteful in the heat of an argument.

“You want to be proud of yourself after the conversation,” Stoddard said. “If they’re your family member, you’re going to be connected to them until your end of days. It’s important that we keep the relationship intact.”

You may not like them at that moment, but remember that you love them. After you deliver the perfect argument that’s pithy and cutting, you might only stand triumphant for 60 seconds before the reality sets in that you’ve hurt someone you love (and you kind of liked doing it).  

Though it’s no easy task, try to take your mind out of the heat of battle and think ahead to how this argument could affect relationships for years to come. 

Hear in order to be heard

“That’s the funny thing about being heard by someone else,” Stoddard said. “You have to hear them.”

Validating someone else doesn’t require you to agree with them, but it does let them know that you acknowledge their point of view. Stoddard said we need to listen with curiosity to understand why it is that something is important to someone. 

She also said it’s helpful to move away from the jargon of your point of view, and instead move towards a commonality that your sides share. Rather than saying Black Lives Matter or Blue Lives Matter, steer the conversation “towards the fact that we’re trying to say that everyone should be treated with love, care, and humanity.”

“If the other person feels like you haven’t heard them, they won’t soften to hear what you’re saying,” she said. “If their point is out, then they have nothing left but the space that you’re about to fill.” 

“If their point is out, then they have nothing left but the space that you’re about to fill.”

Katrina stoddard, marriage and family therapist

Set healthy boundaries

It’s okay to give your support person a cue or code word to signal that you’re getting heated and the self soothing isn’t working so they can come and rescue you from the conversation. That way you don’t get upset and do something you’re not proud of.

It’s vital to know when to end a conversation. Sometimes it’s 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 know it’s not a good idea to go there, you can gently set a boundary in a way that doesn’t make them feel rejected. A good way to do this is by diverting the conversation to a neutral topic such as asking to see baby pictures or how the kitchen renovation is going. That way they know you care to speak with them, just not about a divisive topic. 

Another way to set a boundary is to honestly tell them, “I love talking to you about this, but because of the pandemic I haven’t been able to see everyone and I want to enjoy the holiday.” 

Stoddard even said that it’s alright to invite them to a Zoom at a later date to engage in a “battle of the minds.” But if you decide that the social and political events of 2020 aren’t on the table for discussion this year, that’s a boundary that you’re allowed to set. 

Stoddard said that many of her clients have expressed anxieties surrounding upcoming discussions with family members on the other side of the aisle. Staying calm and focusing on our shared humanity seem to be the keys to avoiding a holiday meltdown. 

Catherine Hoffman covers community and culture for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America.

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