Managing Difficult Conversations Over the Holidays

This week in the United States, many of us will return to our families to celebrate Thanksgiving. Whether this is a family of birth or family of choosing, the holidays can be stressful and hard for many, and the inevitable contentious, tense conversations arise.

Political issues, topics that raise issues from our past or trigger us, often lead us to avoid or withdraw, or lean further in and fight — all in ways that aren’t super productive.

As I talk about in Honestly Speaking, the good news is that you have the power within you not only to diffuse but to manage these conversations that often fill us with dread, rage, or any other variety of emotions over the holidays.

So much of what makes these situations hard is our initial approach to them, largely based on expectations of how they’ll be based on the past.

Keep in mind, communication is at least as much about the relationships you build as the words you speak.

Even if you find yourself disagreeing with everything someone says, starting from a place of compassion and doing all you can to make sure they feel heard goes a long way to improving all of these interactions.

The first step is managing what’s going on in our own brains. When we find ourselves in difficult situations, we often allow our fight or flight instinct to take over and we don’t make rational choices. So a little work on the front end can save you tons of stress and time, so you can communicate from a place of choice, not based on old habits.

The second step is to be clear about your goal for the dinner. What would be an ideal outcome? Is the goal to change someone’s mind? (unlikely). Is it to come across as thoughtful, curious, respectful? (maybe more likely).

Here are a few specific suggestions to consider on managing tense conversations:

1. Anticipate beforehand. What topics set you off? What topics would you want to avoid? How will you talk about topics that are contentious? In an ideal world absent any stress, what would you say or how would you want to come across? Practicing helps you feel more prepared and even having a few prepared phrases can help you not feel like a deer caught in the headlights, or say something you might later regret.

2. Master Small Talk. The first, easiest way to do this is by asking questions. And then listen — truly listen — to the answers. Be prepared with a few things you might want to ask people about. Think about, or look at social media feeds to find, what people might have been up to that you could ask about.

3. Manage your stress with care. In other words, take care of yourself. We often think about compassion as something we show others, but here, it includes showing compassion for yourself. The holidays can be stressful times, people are often tired and run down. Taking care of yourself — creating space for things you enjoy, time alone, exercise, whatever it may be — is one of the single most important things you can do to be clear-eyed, in control of your reactions, and in tune to the sense of compassion we all have for others.

4. Have allies and get some space. If you can, bring a friend or someone from outside the family to help diffuse and manage the situations. If you can’t, or even if you can, try to identify ways you can find space — to take a walk, get some fresh air, take a break and come back to the interactions with a different perspective. Pulling yourself out of the immediate and seeing the broader context is 50 percent of managing hard conversations.

We all have the capacity to show a little more compassion to ourselves and all those around us. Seeking less to blame, and more to find common ground. If we can approach each interaction this way, it will be easier to find the words we need to communicate with confidence, clarity and authenticity. It’s like your own super power — you get to control the tone and approach.

You’ll be in more emotional control if you come from a place of trying to see more of how we are the same than we are different. And then knowing when to agree to disagree and move on.

Wishing you and yours very Happy Thanksgiving. May you find gratitude for all of the blessings in our lives, seen and unseen.

Communications and culture leader, author, certified coach, lawyer, yoga teacher.