Skip to main content

Navigating holiday discussions


Traditional etiquette rules probably won’t stop loved ones from engaging in conversations that can raise blood pressure this year. Whether you meet on a screen or around a dinner table, hot-button topics may include the election, racism, police brutality and other political topics. It’s helpful to know how to handle them respectfully so you can value yourself while you honor your loved ones.

Anticipating and accepting conflicting beliefs

As the saying goes, you can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family. People tend to surround themselves with others who have similar views and values. And, should insurmountable differences arise, it’s easier to break a friendship than a family relationship. Plus,  if you cut family ties, it can create emotional distress for the entire family. 

To keep the peace, some families choose to take sensitive discussion topics off the table. Others are friendly to stimulating debates. If someone in your family introduces a sensitive topic, you may want to consider handling it in one or more of the following ways.

Evaluate your goals surrounding sensitive subjects 

Do you want to change someone’s mind or get a better understanding of their views? Remember, if you want to be seen and heard, you also have to see and hear others—this builds the foundation for a constructive dialogue. Debates rarely lead to a reversal of an opinion so for a more productive conversation, it may be better to try and learn more about their beliefs instead of getting them to agree with you. 

Find common ground 

Putting yourself in a loved one’s shoes can help you understand them and build tolerance. Empathizing with a family member lets you see things from their perspective. Seek out topics you agree on to connect and emphasize how you’re more alike than different. For instance, you and a relative can disagree about how to pay for universal healthcare, but you both agree that everyone needs coverage.

Asserting yourself diplomatically

You may face situations in which you don’t want to talk about something, a conversation becomes heated, or someone makes a hurtful remark. There are ways to exit a conversation or, if a comment offends you, letting the person know in a way that lifts you up without putting others down. When you need to speak up in a heated moment or gracefully exit a conversation, have some “stock” phrases in mind:

  1. Declaring a “time out” can calm everyone down and give them a chance to truly digest everything.
  2. Use “I” statements, such as “I respect your opinion, however, I’m not comfortable talking about this further.”
  3. Set boundaries to let people know what you need in order to continue having the discussion: “I feel offended when you use racial slurs, and I’d appreciate it if you would stop saying them.”
  4. If you notice you have gathered spectators, it might be helpful to postpone the conversation with “I don’t want this to become a group argument—I’m really interested in hearing how you feel about this topic. Could we talk later?”¹
  5. Exit a conversation without shutting down communication: “I know it’s going to take a lot more than one conversation to really understand one another, and I’m happy to discuss this again later with you.”¹
  6. You may end conversations through showing your gratitude, which is especially appropriate at Thanksgiving: “Thank you for your opinion. I’m glad we’ve had the chance to share our views.”
  7. And, of course, you can always walk away.

Through honoring yourself and your loved ones during difficult conversations, you build a greater understanding and acceptance of their views. In the process, you can reduce your fear of tough talk and potentially deepen your relationships.

It’s also useful to reflect on any discussions you participated in to understand your beliefs and what triggers you. What bothered you and where did you feel valued? If the lingering stress about the issues or the family member you discussed them with is at a level that interferes with your life or your family relationships, you may want to consider seeking help from a mental health professional. They can guide you through handling awkward situations and difficult people. They can also help you recognize why you feel the way you do.

If you’d like help managing relationships with your loved ones, Citizen Advocates offers individual, group, marriage, and family counseling services. To learn more, contact us today.