Dealing with Difficult Family Discussions

The holidays are here, and this year, conversation around the festively decorated dinner table will be more challenging than ever. With the intense political upheaval of the recent presidential election, this holiday season may seem even more daunting than most. Here are some tips to help you survive discussions with those family members that you don’t see eye-to-eye with.

1. Create Intention

Going into challenging discussions--especially about political views and social justice issues--without a clear goal can be disastrous for you and your family member. While you’re traveling home:

  • Think carefully about what you are trying to accomplish in these discussions.

  • Make sure to see this intention from the other person’s point of view

  • Alter your intentions as necessary to ensure it is fair and realistic.


 2. Proceed with Curiosity

Often we think we’re listening to other people when engaged in conversation. However we’re usually thinking of our next point or making judgments about how the other is wrong, small-minded, etc. Actually and actively listening is a very difficult skill to learn. Use your holiday visit as an opportunity to practice that skill and remind yourself to proceed with curiosity. To adopt “beginner’s mind” in the situation:

  • Notice the person’s body language and what they’re saying with it.

  • Really try to truly understand the other person’s point of view and intention from their perspective.

  • Ask genuine questions about their points and perhaps how they came to adopt this perspective in general.

    You could learn a great deal about your family member this way. Who knows, maybe you asking this question to them will help them begin to question themselves in a healthy way too!


3. Acknowledge Emotions with Dignity

Discussing political views or other fundamental differences with a person you have to maintain a relationship with is an emotional experience for both parties. Acknowledging these emotions is paramount and will help avoid an explosion later on. Remember:

  • To acknowledge the emotions of the other person. Even though you don’t agree with them, their emotions are still present and valid.

  • Not everyone will respond positively to verbalizing what you see to be their emotional experience, however. Reflecting your gruff and guarded Uncle Lou that he appears hurt by your words is likely to be a good way to end the conversation in a door slam.

  • Find ways to acknowledge their experience that is appropriate for that person and without condescension.


4. Take Breaks

Arguing your respective points for the amount of time it takes to cook the turkey will not be constructive. Be mindful of the time as well as your energy levels. Don’t forget:

  • It is perfectly acceptable to communicate that it feels time to table the discussion for the moment while making a concrete time to revisit the topic (perhaps post-dessert and coffee when everyone is feeling a bit more forgiving and open).

  • To let the other person know you’re not avoiding it or dismissing them, but that you are both human and both need rest.


5. Extend Gratitude

However the conversation goes, extend gratitude to the other for participating in it with you. This can keep the door open for future discussions and help maintain your relationship with this person. Remember Rome wasn’t built in a day and no person’s convictions sway after a single discussion. To extend gratitude and show respect:

  • Get the person a glass of water or cup of coffee during the argument.

  • Ask them if you can help them with a task after the discussion (setting the table, or running an errand).

    Tending to their needs communicates respect despite disagreeing words and can help them change judgments they may have made about you.


6. Self-Care

Be sure to engage in whatever self-care activity is healthy and available to you (so guzzling alcohol or sugary foods may not be the best idea). Some productive self care ideas include:

  • Taking a walk.

  • Playing a game with a different family member,

  • Taking a shower or relaxing bath.

  • Taking some time to sit quietly, or sip on some tea.

Remind yourself you cannot fundamentally change the other person and reflect on the intention or objective you set at the beginning.


The holidays can be difficult at the best of times, and this year will be no exception. By keeping these survival tips in mind, you can go into tough conversations prepared.