Encouraging Positive Conversation at Your Holiday Gatherings

The principles of good conversation which we try to practice in our Conversations New York meetings, may be useful at your holiday gatherings. Here’s are six of them:

The holiday season, beginning with Thanksgiving this week, is a time of sharing and gathering, of getting together with family and friends.
Usually a wonderful time of the year, it can also be a season of discord, especially as political topics may be common in the weeks following such a uniquely contentious election.
Talk of politics and other hot topics can be tricky to navigate with family and friends – especially when we don’t see eye to eye – and it seems like the divisive election season might only make holiday conflicts harder to avoid this year.

Here’s how you can keep the family dinner conversations more about genuine dialogue and understanding despite differences than heated rhetoric and emotional outbursts.

  1. Be an active listener: Listening is key to respectful conversations. Be sure that you are really seeking to hear and understand what’s being said, not just looking the next moment to interject or thinking about what you’ll say to argue their last point. Be sure to give the person your talking with your full attention – look at them, show you are listening with verbal or non-verbal affirmations (like saying “I see” or nodding), and ask clarifying questions about what they’ve said. Modeling active listening invites the other person to reciprocate when it’s your turn to talk.
  2. Keep an open mind: Dialogue is most successful when we are open enough to learn something new and even admit that we might be wrong. Be open to others’ ideas and perspectives, to learning something new, to questioning your assumptions, and suspend your judgments for as long as you can. If you hear something that makes you angry or offended, take a moment to think whether your own biases are at play, and take the chance to ask for clarification or for them to say it in a different way. Misunderstandings frequently come from our own assumptions about what someone means, so asking about it can help prevent hurt feelings and breakdowns in communication.
  3. Be curious. The opinions that we hold are usually grounded in a deeper set of values or broader outlook that we hold as important. So ask questions that seek to understand the values, interests, fears, or hopes that underlie a position or opinion you disagree with rather than just reacting against it. Being genuinely curious about what’s important to the other person can open up space for more meaningful dialogue. Focusing conversation on our deeper beliefs, values, and hopes gets at the core of what’s important to us and is a place where we can find more understanding.
  4. Discuss stories rather than debating facts: Stories from your life or that both of you can relate to can help make space for personal connection and perspective taking that can shift an argument to a discussion. Especially in political conversations, telling stories can help you illustrate your points while circumventing disagreement over specific facts or statistics. Sharing a story during an argument can also help slow things down and build empathy, which can often help shift the tone back towards a more positive exchange.
  5. Look for common ground: If you find yourself in an acrimonious debate, try shifting the conversation toward what you can agree on. If it’s a friend or family member, think about what interests, experiences, or beliefs you know you share in common and invite reflection on them. Even if you hold different opinions, is there a shared value that you both bring to the specific issue? Do you both have similar hopes for the future? Bringing discussion back to important things we share in common can help us realize that we’re not so far apart in many cases.
  6. Try to end on a positive note: Even if you don’t agree in the end, that’s OK. Thank them for their willingness to talk with you before you’re done, or acknowledge that you understand more of their perspective now and maybe even learned something. Disagreements are often healthy and don’t mean people can’t get along just fine. Ending the conversation by reaffirming your appreciation and respect for one another promotes better conversations in the future, and it’s much better than someone getting up from the table and storming out.

Credit: National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation