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How to Have a Courageous Conversation With Your Family During the Holidays

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Many families are preemptively halting conversations about politics before their holiday gatherings even get started. Who can blame them? The tension and anxiety is high. We need a break from it. Family gatherings should be a break from bickering and hostility. However, families can also be the very best places for difficult conversations. One of my concerns is that if we are unwilling to have these difficult conversations with those we love the most, how will we ever have them with strangers or those we mistrust? Here are a few tips for having Courageous Conversations with your family this holiday season:

Where to start? The first question to ask is whether the emotions and anxiety are too high or whether the consequences have the potential to be so severe that the conversation either needs to be limited, or doesn’t need to happen at this time and place, or doesn’t need to happen at all. Being honest with ourselves about our apprehensions can be helpful in articulating our fears or other concerns we have going into the conversation. Our fears might include: the relationship will be damaged or lost; hidden or unresolved emotions will spill out; we might say things we will later regret. While families can be the best place to practice the skills of listening and building empathy because of our shared history and mutual respect, families can also be the most difficult place to have these conversations because the stakes can be so high. These are the relationships we depend on for stability and love.

It might be helpful to think ahead about possible outcomes. If a person is known for being stubborn and unwilling to listen, then your expectations should reflect that. If there is a person with whom you have a tenuous relationship, then you need to consider whether to even begin a conversation about politics or other debatable issue. 

Be courageous and brave enough to have the conversations.

If you decide that discussing politics probably won’t result in severe relationship damage, the next step is the willingness to engage. One of the dynamics that will influence the conversation is your own attitude. If you approach these conversations ready for a fight, to tell someone off, or to tell another person why he or she is wrong, there’s a good chance the conversation will inevitably head in that direction. However, if you remind yourself of your commitments, convictions, and values beforehand, there’s a better chance the conversation will create an opportunity for growth.

We might have to explicitly and repeatedly remind ourselves of our commitment to our parents despite how offensive we find their opinions. Or we might have to clarify our conviction not to tolerate hateful words and be willing to voice our disagreement in love and gentleness.

Affirm fears and the relationship upfront.

Every family has its unique way of dealing with anxiety and conflict. While it might not always be needed, it would be wise in the current partisan climate to state explicitly as soon as the conversation presents itself– forced or invited into– that no matter what else is said, your commitment is to the relationship. Being intentional about this affirms that the conversation will be safe enough for all to voice opinions that may not not be mutual or may even be offensive.

Enact appropriate boundaries.

Being brave enough to have these conversations does not mean that these conversations should dominate all family conversations. It might be helpful to set a specific time and location. For some, a dinner table might be the best place for these conversations. For others, having difficult conversations is best done away from knives, forks, and food. You also need to be willing to set boundaries on how long the conversations last. There should be room for people to either call a timeout or respectfully end the conversation. You might say, “I am so passionate about this issue, I’m not sure I’m being articulate right now. Let’s talk about this more later.” Or “Because of your tone, I am having a hard time hearing what you are trying to express. Why don’t we stop talking about this for now?”

Drop the suspicion and jumping to conclusions.

Imagine two people in a conversation. The first person notes his disapproval of a new regulation from the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency). The second person then accuses the first of being in favor of big business, hating the environment, and caring only about profits. Or similarly, person A affirms a new cabinet choice of the president-elect. Person B accuses Person A of being a hatemonger and bigot. Each example, an affirmation of a person or a disapproval of policy has led to accusations that may or may not be true for person A. Jumping to conclusions will only alienate and block learning. Instead, work hard to extend the benefit of the doubt or to assume the best instead of the worst in terms of motivation and intent. Ask others to clarify their positions rather than assuming you know their rationale and reasoning.

Do more listening and questioning than offering opinions.

Dropping the tendency toward suspicion and jumping to conclusions invites us to slow down the conversation. Doing deep listening asks us to take a posture of curiosity. Now is the time to ask more questions instead of assuming what another person believes. Here's the reality: We can never know another person's motivations and intent. Taking a posture of curiosity invites participants of the conversation into learning. “What do you think are the consequences of taking such a stance?” “What leads you to that conclusion?” “What’s most important to you about this?”

Allow people the opportunity to explain their perspectives.

It is a natural tendency to label and categorize people. It comes easily to us. It helps us manage our world. But we limit people when we categorize them instead of hearing their unique nuances. There are many reasons people vote and believe the way they do. Give others the chance to explain their perspectives. Invoking curiosity makes learning the priority instead of "being right" or making sure “all the facts are known.” Additionally, when we take the posture of curiosity, we can see beyond the myth that there are only “conservative” and “liberal” vantage points that are often portrayed in the media.

Seek to understand more than to be understood.

This comes from a line in a popular English version of prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi that begins with the words, “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.”1 It is both hard work and a gift to truly be fully present with another with a desire to understand that person’s perspective. Our tendency is to focus on articulating our perspective. One way to be intentional about keeping this prayer in focus is to imagine Christ in the room with you.

Be willing to admit wrong opinions and misperceptions.

Adults don't like looking incompetent. That's a large understatement: Adults hate it and avoid it as much as possible. Within the Christian tradition, our beliefs invite us to a different posture. The doctrine of sin reminds us that we are limited, selfish, and self-centered. Sin is much more than individual behaviors. Sin is about a condition in which we are plagued with self-centeredness that causes us all to be biased and prejudiced by nature. There is a good reason why Christian tradition has deeply imbedded within it the act of confession and repentance. Confession is nothing more than being honest with God and ourselves about reality. Confession and repentance are postures of the Christian life.

Agree to end with a comma and not a period. ‪

The other side of affirming the relationship upfront is to reinforce this commitment going forward. See these conversations as the beginning or a small part of an ongoing conversation. Affirm your appreciation for those who are brave enough to have the conversation and affirm what you have learned as a result of the conversation. Stress how you have benefited and how you hope the ongoing conversations will make your relationships even deeper and enable the growth of all involved.

Don’t be so serious.

Family gatherings during the holidays offer a break from the hectic pace of life. Having an intense conversation about difficult social issues is rarely an ideal we have for our holidays. One way to lower anxiety and emotional distress comes down to the one person who we can control - ourselves. Resist the urges of personalizing and being defensive. Your convictions and opinions are more likely to be heard when they come from a place of confidence and humility. If possible, find some ways to insert appropriate humor and areas of common concern.

Keep the main thing the main thing.

Let’s admit that being right feels good and that no one wants to look foolish. Make the object of these conversations more about growth in our own understanding and maturity than “being right.” Beyond that is the goal of growing in relationship with one another. Often, when we grow in our relationships with one another, that is when we find we are most Christlike and recognize God’s presence with us has been provoking us all along.

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