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Consider these tips for handling tough conversations during the holidays

As family and friends gather over the upcoming holidays, there’s potential for people to encounter some tough conversations based on differing views, beliefs and feelings.

Catherine Borshuk. Photo courtesy of Indiana University South Bend.  Catherine Borshuk. Photo courtesy of Indiana University South Bend. So, how should you deal with those conversations?

Catherine Borshuk, a professor of psychology at Indiana University South Bend, took time recently to answer some questions on the topic.

Question: We’re almost three years into the COVID-19 pandemic and in a time of political divisiveness. What’s most important for navigating such conversations during the holidays?

Answer: Let’s ask this question: Is a holiday dinner really the best setting to try to change people’s minds about issues? It may be worth it to go into such situations with the goal of just listening and learning something new about another person rather than try to get them over to “your team.”

I think it’s helpful to lead with empathy, which is simply understanding someone else’s point of view and even trying to feel what they are feeling. So many conflicts arise from emotions such as defensiveness, fear or worry. If we were to acknowledge the impact these emotions have on ourselves, as well as others, it might make us better listeners.

Q: If you are hosting a gathering, should you set any expectations in advance for guests regarding off-limits or potentially difficult topics?

A: Oh, yes! But there are better and worse ways to do this. Behavioral modeling can be more effective than being preachy, which promotes reactance, where people just don’t want to hear you. So instead of laying out ground rules, I would encourage hosts to model the best behavior for your guests:

  • Show grace and understanding.
  • Be welcoming and forgiving.
  • Talk about things you have in common.
  • Tell funny stories that don’t poke fun at any guests.
  • Encourage everyone to keep positive.

A good host has the skills to know when to change the subject by asking a diverting question, so be prepared with some distractions for moments when guests may get heated!

Q: If you have been invited to a gathering but feel uncomfortable attending because of potential discussions, is there a good way to decline the invitation?

A: Just say, “Thank you so much, but I’m not able to attend this year.” No need to get into details about the potential off-putting views of your hosts’ friends.

Q: How can you be respectful of others’ views even if they do not align with your views?

A: A couple strategies. One is to remind yourself before getting into such a situation that there’s a time and place for difficult dialogue, and a holiday get-together is probably not it. So, if you truly want to go deep about social or political issues with your cousin, think about choosing another time when you can do this (if your cousin agrees).

Another is to remind yourself that you don’t necessarily need to make public everything that you hold close to your heart at every possible moment. Around the dinner table, there may be people battling addiction or grieving, those who are worried about losing their job or are wondering when they should come out as LGBT — and it’s OK for them to keep those things in a safe part of themselves where others cannot turn them into weapons. You don’t need to speak all your truths, especially if you could be harmed in the process.

Q: What’s important for maintaining a friendship with someone who holds differing views than yours?

A: It’s not easy, especially if you find those views reprehensible on the level of your values. If my friend were actively speaking or advocating in a way that undermined my values of, say, human rights, I would honestly reassess the basis for that friendship. After all, friendship is based on mutuality and self-disclosure, and if people in a relationship change to the degree that they cannot trust one another and have little in common, that friendship may well end.

People get divorced for the same reasons. But many divorced people remain amicable after the break-up, so there’s no need to take public swipes at former friends.

If the difference is less far-reaching, however, compassionate honesty (in the right time and place) is probably the way to go.

Q: What additional tips would you like to share for handling these types of tough conversations during the holidays?

A: If you have had too much to drink, you are only allowed to talk about television programs and your favorite Girl Scout cookie — nothing more controversial than that, because your judgment will be impaired, you’ll be too loud, you’ll take offense and will regret it the day after.