How to handle family conflicts during the holidays.

Gathering the extended family together for holidays is a treasured tradition for many. Amidst the love and fun, however, awkward quirks and tense conflicts sometimes come out. Given how polarized we are in the U.S. now, this year may be more difficult than most.

Family members who kept a tense but polite silence about someone’s point of view in past years may no longer be willing to remain silent. Feelings may have been hurt over a past snub  — say a relative chose not to attend a wedding or even a funeral  — and loved ones still harbor those emotions.

The topics of health care, civil rights, climate change, religion, the economy, sexism, immigration, etc., may come up during your holiday gatherings. Each may be a hot-button topic for one or more family members. How will you and your family handle all this?

In some cases, relations are so toxic that just staying away from certain members of the family is best. But in most cases, there is a lot of love and loyalty mixed up with the differences. In that case, what can you do? Here are some suggestions about keeping things from getting too heated and steering conversations back to a more civil tone if discussions do become hostile.

Listen
My first suggestion is almost always this: LISTEN. If you can say it truthfully, say that you have a different view, and you would like to learn more about why your relative has their opinions and values. Ask whether your relative would be interested in hearing why you hold your opinions and values. The goal should not be to convert or persuade each other, but to understand each other better. It helps. To check whether you are listening well, voice your understanding of what your relative is saying. Ask whether you got it right. Ask him or her to do the same when listening to your perspective.

How?
Instead of asking yourself, “Can we handle the disagreements in our family?” ask yourself
“How can we handle the disagreements in our family?” What a difference the word
“how” makes. Instead of looking at your past conflicts, you can look toward how to reconcile them in the future with some creative thinking. Invite your relatives to think about and talk about how you all can handle disagreements in your family constructively and peacefully.

Everyone could agree to focus on the love and loyalty in the family and not talk about divisive issues. That won’t help to heal our disagreements, but it can help everyone enjoy their holiday gathering.

Getting heated

Pay attention to people’s stress levels. Ideally, they will be moderate. When stress is too high, as when you are very angry or fearful, people cannot focus on the content of the conversation. They cannot process incoming information. In short, you can’t learn anything from each other. So, if someone starts to get too upset, suggest taking a walk. Walking actually helps you calm yourself and think creatively. (You also get to make good use of some of those holiday calories.) It is probably a good idea for the two family members who are most upset to walk in different directions.

No accusations

You and your relatives may also do better if you agree not to blame and accuse each other for whatever is wrong. Blame and accusations trigger either defensiveness or fight/flight responses. When people get defensive, warm communication ceases. If someone needs to fight back or fly away, your family loses some of its connectedness.

What if we need help?

Professional family mediators facilitate constructive communication when relatives are having difficulty discussing something important. You can learn more by visiting the Academy of Professional Family Mediators online at apfmnet.org.

Exclude some topics?

If you are convinced that some relatives cannot discuss differences in a civil tone, consider whether everyone might agree that certain topics will not be mentioned. Everyone could agree to focus on the love and loyalty in the family and not talk about divisive issues. That won’t help to heal our disagreements, but it can help everyone enjoy their holiday gathering.

Most of us have a lot to be thankful for. Choose to focus on gratitude and family togetherness.

Virginia L. Colin, Ph.D., is the director of Colin Family Mediation Group LLC, colinfamilymediationgroup.com, and has written two books: Human Attachment and The Guide to Low-Cost Divorce in Virginia. Formerly a research psychologist and a radio talk show host, she now specializes in helping couples and ex-couples develop good co-parenting plans and financial agreements.