The holiday season is not unique in terms of the various hot topic conversations that often come up between friends and family members. However, this season may provide more opportunity for such discussions given the nature of getting together with people you may not see on a regular basis and therefore having less of a track record with said people in terms of successfully discussing difficult topics without ending in a knock-down-drag-out brawl that embarrasses Aunt Shirley’s sensibilities. Popular topics that ruin family events include such classics as politics, world events, religion, sex, and of course the ever-controversial issue of whether a food can be considered a side dish if it has marshmallows on top. Don’t get me started.
So, in preparation of your next family or neighborhood gathering, here are some tips on how to successfully navigate any potential argument. Each situation will be different, so choose which tips you’ll want to rely on accordingly.
- Clarify your goal — Do you want to get along or get real? You will have to choose whether to prioritize your commitment to certain relationships or to certain truths, understanding it’s more likely that you’ll trigger anger than change someone’s mind when you communicate. Avoiding arguments isn’t always the right path to choose for our mental health when it costs us an opportunity to speak our words to an important truth. Calling out what violates your sense of morality might help you grow more than it would to enjoy a smooth family meal. If you choose to risk confronting loved ones, recognize the emotional labor you’ll engage and commit to planning recovery as you cycle along the journey. Accept that humans act horribly at times, set boundaries to limit the interaction and internalization, and debrief through your social supports, therapist, meditation practice, and other self-care practices.
- Clarify your goal — With a script: Words are hard. We can relieve some anxious feelings by choosing words in advance when we anticipate a situation likely to involve difficult conversation. Even just a few key scripted phrases can help significantly. Rachel Cargle offers scripts on confronting racism here. Scripts are also helpful for personal issues among family members, e.g. this script offering a response when a well-meaning relative makes a body-shaming comment. Lawyers know how effective the Socratic Method can be — scripted questions might have a better chance at making someone think than it would to assert a fact. Finally, you might just need a clear instruction to remind yourself of your limited goal or any other thought that helps you feel calm — make it a mantra, and use it. Beyond using scripts, you can invest in developing your communication skills (Difficult Conversations is in our Lending Library). And to advance your communication skills further, practice improv.
- Change your goal — Don’t try to change their minds: Compelling arguments rarely change people’s minds, unless of course that person was looking to learn a new perspective or was generally open to adjusting their perspective on an issue. Strongly held beliefs are nearly impossible to sway with well thought out arguments. So, if changing someone’s mind is impossible, stop trying to change their mind.
- Change your goal — Pick something you have control over: Since you don’t have control over changing anyone’s opinions, focus on what you literally have control over. Breathe, remind yourself that no argument is worth ruining your day/night/year over, keep yourself calm, use an even tone, be respectful, don’t “take the bait” if the other person is trying to get you to argue.
- Listen to the other person and let them know you understand what they are saying and feeling: People are less likely to argue with someone who they feel is listening and trying to understand their perspective in a respectful manner, even if there is still disagreement.
- Speak about your personal experiences – Don’t argue about the principles: A common mistake in discussing differences in opinion is the tendency to “speak from 30 thousand feet in the air,” to speak in terms of depersonalized principles of what is right and wrong. A much more effective approach is to talk about your personal experiences, what is meaningful or important to you, and why it’s important to you.
- Use your sense of humor: To avoid “taking the bait” on a hot issue, turn your “argument” into a comedic response that could not be taken seriously. “Who’d you vote for last election?” is confidently answered with, “I wrote in my kitten, Sparkles. He is warm, friendly, but has claws.”
- Avoid the temptation to drag others into the argument to persuade your opponent with a show of force: Even if your opponent holds an unpopular perspective, don’t turn it into a team sport.
- Don’t let a disagreement damage your relationship: End the conversation unresolved if need be and make sure the other person knows that you still care about and respect them, despite any disagreements you both hold. Relationships are much more important than convincing the other person that you are right and they are wrong.
Shawn Healy, PhD
This post has been updated from its original publication in 2017, titled “The Secret to Navigating Hot Topic Conversations,” which now redirects here,