Tips for handling hard conversations at holidays

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by Ginny Cramer


Harrisonburg, Virginia –  For many people this holiday season will include family meals and social functions rife with potentially-divisive topics. We talked to Professor Rob Alexander, co-director of the Institute for Constructive Advocacy and Dialogue at James Madison University about how to best navigate potentially difficult situations as people gather this holiday season.

Q: How can people prepare for holiday events where difficult topics may be brought up in conversation?

Alexander: The anticipation of conflict at a holiday event is natural and common. Coming together with family, friends and neighbors often brings together people with different beliefs, ideas and perspectives.  For some, this might be one of the few places left where we directly interact in such company!  I suggest three items around which we can prepare.  

First, ground yourself in the core values that bring you to the event.  This could be family, loyalty, love, commitment, etc.  Anchoring ourselves in the deeper purpose of why we are showing up provides a way to check in with how we will respond when something is said or shared that is dissonant with our own beliefs or ideas.   For example, if we anticipate a relative sharing an opinion that normally fires us up, pausing and reminding ourselves that we are there for loyalty or love asks us if we are willing to give up those values to respond or react to that relative.

Second, remind yourself who you are when you are at your best listening self.  It is our tendency to react and defend when confronted with difference.  However, if we enter the space with authentic curiosity of others, we find ourselves asking questions and reflectively listening instead.  Consider questions like ‘why is that important to you?’ or ‘what would you lose if things did not play out the way you had hoped?’ that reveal what is under the surface of provocative statements.  Then, ensure that the talker feels heard by paraphrasing what is heard back to them.  It is possible that how we heard them is not how they intended to be heard.  Also, the more we understand the beliefs and values that inform opinions and behaviors, the more likely we are to find commonalities where we least expect them.  

Finally, identify what boundaries you need to draw and find ways to articulate those boundaries to those who may cross them.  Positive assertion is a communication skill where we constructively share with others how their behaviors have negatively impacted us and why.  When we assert and then switch over into a reflective listening mode, we are often able to diffuse escalating emotional energy in ourselves and others to reach a space where we can improve the relationship.

Q: What is the best way to navigate tricky conversations?

Alexander: Conflict management theorists describe five general ways to react and respond to situations where our needs aren’t being met.  Which behavior we choose depends upon two questions: how much do we care about the relationship with that person; and how much do we care about the outcome of the situation?  If the relationship with that person is not important to us but the outcome of the conversation needs to go our way, we will compete or argue until we get what we want.  Alternately, if having a positive relationship with the person is much more important, such as if we live with them or if they have power over us, but we don’t care about the final word in the conversation, we tend to accommodate the needs of the other.  Neither approach provides a win-win for anybody involved

Instead, remember your boundaries and practice reflective listening. If the other person crosses one of these boundaries, then let the person know in as calm a manner as possible how their words and behaviors have negatively impacted you and be prepared to become the listener as they respond.  If necessary, repeat your assertion until you feel that the other person has heard you and you can move past the moment. 

Never put yourself in a situation where you have a high risk of experiencing harm.  In these situations, avoidance is the best conflict management option.

Q: How can families and friends be respectful of each other’s opinions? 

Alexander: Respect is a tricky term because it is subjective. A person is acting with respect only if the other person feels respected.  In other words, we don’t get to decide if we are acting respectfully; that is up to the person or people experiencing our behaviors. 

We can find out if we are acting respectfully if we take the time to ask if the other person is feeling respected and if we are then able to listen to their response.  Alternately, we need to let people know if their talk and behaviors cause us to feel disrespected.  Chances are, the person may not have any idea that their talk may be harming us.

Q: Do you suggest completely avoiding certain topics at holidays? Why or why not?

Alexander: For sure we should avoid certain topics, especially if we do not have the time, space, or motivation to engage in those topics.  We have to authentically want to have a positive or improved relationship with a person to be willing to engage in working through conflict with them.  We also need sufficient time and space with few distractions where we can take turns asserting and listening to one another. Finally, we should avoid trigger topics when anyone involved is not in a rational space, such as under the influence of drugs or alcohol.  Asserting and listening work best when all involved have self-awareness of their emotions and have the ability to act objectively.

Q: How can people still enjoy holiday events after uncomfortable conversations? 

Alexander: That is up to the person who experienced the discomfort, but if we reground ourselves in the anchor values that brought us to the event where the conversations occurred, we have a greater ability to transcend the negative impact of those moments.  However, it may be important to follow up with those involved at another time and in another space to share how the conversation made you feel and to listen to their response.  This is especially true if both people want to or need to maintain a positive relationship with the other.

Sadly, there may be people involved who not only do not desire positive relationships but instead seek to cause harm.  This is when the core values that brought us to the gathering are very different and likely not reconcilable.  It is perhaps best to negotiate distance with these people to avoid any interaction.

Hopefully, however, by reminding ourselves that we have the capacities to assert and listen with skill while grounding ourselves solidly in values of family, love, and loyalty, we might actually emerge from the holidays with improved relationships.  Try it out;  you may be surprised.



Contact: Ginny Cramer,, 540-568-5325

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Published: Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Last Updated: Thursday, January 4, 2024

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