The holidays are a wonderful time of year, especially when it means getting together with family and friends you haven’t seen in a while.
Of course, despite even the best intentions, catching up on the latest goings on in people’s lives can take a turn for the worse when awkward topics come up.
From “When are you going to have kids?” and “Are you in a relationship yet?” to what will surely become classics this year, “Who did you vote for?” and “This country’s going to hell in a handbasket!”, certain topics should really remain off the table during this time together. But you try telling that to your 95-year-old grandma who says whatever she damn-well pleases.
If you’re looking to keep things civil this holiday season, try these tips for navigating potentially awkward conversations:
1. Set some ground rules
“You can set expectations before the meal even begins by saying something like, ‘It has been a really interesting year for everyone, and I would like to ask that we not talk politics. We all have a lot to catch up on and connect over,'” suggests Lizzie Post, co-author of several Emily Post etiquette books and founding partner of the Bob Evans Holiday Helpline.
2. Try starting with popular topics
If you know that a healthy dialogue about controversial topics is not possible at your holiday celebration, avoid the hot-button issues and stick to more popular and socially acceptable topics like sports. You could try throwing out something general like, “How about them Cubs?” and see who bites.
“Do not invest your time in a discussion where there is no chance of being heard,” Dr. Michael McNulty, a master trainer from The Gottman Institute and founder of the Chicago Relationship Center, tells Business Insider. “People have to be able to listen to and respect one another before a healthy dialogue can occur.”
3. Redirect the conversation to something personal and positive
“If there are still contentious conversations happening, it’s important to redirect, not correct, so everyone feels comfortable,” Post says.
She recommends saying something like, “Sam, I’d love to get away from politics (or finances, religion, romantic drama, etc.) and hear about your vacation to Florida.”
“By turning the conversation to more personal topics and encouraging discussion, you can be sure not to offend any of the guests while also maintaining a positive atmosphere at the table,” Post says.
4. Be firm but polite
If you try to redirect the conversation a few times and it’s not working, Post says it’s completely appropriate for you to say with a smile and a friendly, firm tone, “We are finished talking about this at the table.” And then once again, begin a new, positive conversation.
5. If debate is unavoidable, make it a dialogue
It’s expected that families have diverse opinions, but if you have to keep talking about politics or other potentially contentious topics, it’s best to change the debate into a dialogue in which everyone feels respected and understood, McNulty says.
“Dialogues are a way to understand and support one another, even when people have significantly different points of view,” he explains.
To have a dialogue, McNulty suggests talking about your positions one at a time, telling the stories behind them that explain why they are important to you, and as you listen to others, summarizing and reflecting back what you are hearing.
“Do not attempt to changes people’s minds. Show respect for each person. This is healthy for all involved,” he says. “In fact, people who are able to dialogue feel more connected to the ones they love, even with their differences. Model this for younger generations.”
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