In any ordinary year, the holidays are stressful.
But this year, the season is marred by a devastating pandemic, social unrest and a contentious election season. Gathering family and friends together for reunions and celebrations already creates tension — and there is no doubt that 2020 festivities will only heighten conflict.
While some are foregoing holiday gatherings altogether, many families will spend time with relatives over the next few months. Amid a year characterized by stress and conflict, how can you navigate tense dinner table conversations? Though a home dynamic differs greatly from an office dynamic, some of the same principles apply to keeping a family or team happy and fulfilled throughout their time together.
Alongside the usual holiday preparations like cooking the turkey and shopping for gifts, families should have a plan for how to navigate awkward discussions. Just like in a workplace environment, knowing how to handle conflict at home is an important skill, one that can maintain healthy relationships with relatives — and, to everyone’s relief, can help keep the peace in your family.
First, it is important to note that conflict is not always a bad thing. Conflict can be a vital element of unity and working together — if it is healthy. Just like in the workplace, healthy, constructive conflict drives a team — or family — toward progress. New ideas are exposed. Other viewpoints add diverse perspectives. It is not realistic to expect everyone to be in constant agreement with one another — so let’s change our default perception to one that looks at conflict not only as inevitable, but as an opportunity to grow.
If you and your family have shifted your mindset in this way, you will not be caught off guard when your cousin brings up his hot takes, or when your aunt scoffs at your parenting decisions. You cannot control your guests’ input at the dinner table — but you can control how you handle it.
If your cousin begins an argument, you can stand up for your beliefs without escalating the conflict. First, listen and ask questions, and resist the urge to insert your opinion or jump to conclusions. Ask your cousin why he believes the things he does. Listen to what he says and who he seems to be now, not what you think of him based on past interactions. As you listen, look for instances of common ground. A commonly-held idea today, especially throughout election season, is that we cannot have any kind of relationship with those who disagree with us. This polarization is not productive. Even when issues feel very divisive, usually there is some piece you can agree on. Build on that piece, no matter how small. After you have established that you share things in common, you can offer your own thoughts in a measured, thoughtful way. Once you have made your point, let it rest.
A friend of ours often says, “It’s more important to get it right rather than be right.” When we focus on winning an argument, rather than having a conversation, we shift into an unhealthy mode of conflict. If at the dinner table, you aim to be “right” at all costs, you will walk away with an icier relationship with your cousin — and maybe more importantly, a lost opportunity to learn and grow. Your goal this holiday season should be to appreciate time spent with family, so be willing to hear people out. It is usually not worth damaging a relationship to prove your point.
Lastly, know when to walk away. This year has been tough on everyone, and it is vital we give people the grace we ourselves want to receive. Read the room, and recognize when it is time for your family to bond and celebrate traditions, rather than solve the world’s issues around pumpkin pie. Conflict can be instrumental in bringing people together, rather than driving them apart, if we only learn to expect and embrace it.