6 ways to manage uncomfortable holiday conversations

The holidays are not always the most wonderful time of year. For some people, holiday dinner is served with a side of anxiety, anger, or even resentment. Whether your parents launch into a conversation with you about how they haven’t been given the grandkids they are looking forward to spoiling, or your uncle corners you about how you should’ve been promoted by now, difficult conversations are inevitable at any time of year—although the holidays create a perfect recipe for triggering comments and discussions. 

“For all of us, those types of long-standing conversations or sometimes estrangements are difficult and uncomfortable for everybody,” Dr. Kurt Michael, senior clinical director at The Jed Foundation (JED), tells Fortune. “Going in knowing that is potentially helpful in that if it’s tough for you, it’s probably tough for the other party.”

Entering a difficult conversation with someone we care about can be anxiety-inducing. Whether it’s a planned talk or you’re addressing comments made in the moment, the conversation can cause physiological symptoms like sweating, stomach issues, or a racing heart rate. Preparing for difficult conversions that may brew can serve us, especially during this time of year. A poll last year found people’s stress levels were more likely to increase during the holidays. 

Dr. Julia Minson, a decision scientist with expertise in conflict and decision-making and associate professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, tells Fortune it boils down to addressing our misconceptions around conflict and then understanding our goals when we go into a difficult conversation. 

First, she explains “false polarization,” or our assumption that we are more different from someone than the reality. It causes us to assume the worst will happen in a conversation, as if everyone has a vendetta to get us and will inevitably misunderstand us. When we enter a conversation with someone, who may see things differently from us, it’s important not to write off the ending before it even begins. It also helps to know that some people need time to process a difficult conversation, especially if it’s coming from your end, so you may hear a more reflective response past the immediate ending of the conversation, Michael says.  

Here’s how experts say you can prepare for a uncomfortable conversation over the holidays.

What is your goal?

Having an intention is key. Recall leaving a heated conversation even more distraught than when you started? It’s likely because you didn’t know what you wanted out of it. 

“Oftentimes, we’ll go into difficult situations, having all these negative feelings that we’re trying to assuage,” Dr. Heidi Kar, a psychologist and the principal adviser for mental health, trauma, and violence initiatives at the Education Development Center, tells Fortune. “And if we’re not really clear, we come out not feeling like we got what we wanted, either.”

The most successful conversations stem from us setting goals, Kar says. Do you need to express yourself or your frustration about a comment to someone? Do you need to feel like you swayed them to make you feel better? Do you want to solve a problem? It’s no surprise that when your goal is to change how someone else reacts, it’s never in your control. 

“If your goal is I need to say my piece, and I need to say it in a way that I feel like I explained it clearly and completely, you have a much better chance of getting there than if your goal is to change how they feel or how they think,” Kar says. 

Consider your goal to be about learning 

When you enter a conversation ready to listen and learn versus explain your side, people become receptive, experts say. Explaining how you saw a situation and asking how someone else saw it or why they reacted a certain way can help foster a successful conversation. Minson says we can get stuck in the trap of “attribution making,” where we make assumptions about people’s motives before asking them ourselves. We can spiral about what someone did that turns out to be a result of our own imagination and stress. 

“When you ask people questions, you find out the real causes behind their behavior,” Minson says. “Often, they’re surprising.” 

How we communicate matters 

Being mindful of our language can alter the trajectory of the conversation. Using “I” statements that indicate how a situation made you feel can allow the other person to respond emphatically rather than defensively. It also takes the focus off of the person and puts it on the issue itself. 

Consider saying something like, “I’m trying to figure out how you and I can figure out a way forward with this issue,” Kar says, which can make it “very clear to separate what the issue is from the individual person.”

It also helps to be mindful of how the other person responds. 

“We’re so focused on what we want to communicate that we’re actually pretty distracted from reading other people’s signals,” Kar says. “The longer you can keep someone calm, the longer you can keep someone non-defensive, the better chance you have of getting messages through.” 

Listening and curiosity are age-old tenets of good conversation, but what really matters is “conversational receptiveness,” or what Minson researches as the ways to make someone feel listened to. She uses the HEAR method:

  • Hedging words: use words like “sometimes,” “perhaps,” or “occasionally,” so “you’re not making claims that are quite as dogmatic,” she says. 
  • Emphasizing agreement: Try to find commonality rather than focusing on what you disagree on. If your parents are upset that you haven’t had children and make you feel bad about yourself, consider saying something like “I know we both care about family” before expressing yourself more. 
  • Acknowledgment: Consider repeating what someone said to them to show you’re listening. 
  • Reframing to the positive: Instead of saying, “I hate when you interrupt me,” consider saying, “I really like when I can finish my thought,” Minson suggests. 

Kindness wins 

The adage, treat people like how you want to be treated, rings true when it comes to difficult conversations. We get defensive when we feel attacked, Minson says, and therefore, the conversation isn’t productive when both parties fight for the other to award them the winning hat. Also, kindness rubs off on people. 

“The way we treat other people tends to trigger a spiral of how they will then respond to us,” Minson says.  

Be mindful of when and where the conversation takes place 

If a comment boils your blood right before a holiday dinner, consider taking a few deep breaths and asking that person for coffee or a phone call the next week. (If you’re like me, it can be hard not to fester over the upcoming conversation in the meantime, but try to label a box Sunday in your head and put it away until then). 

“Don’t do it with an audience,” Minson says. “A  lot of the reason that things blow up is because you’re at the table, and then there’s people watching. It’s like it’s a tennis match…there is no reason to sort of jump at the bait in the moment.”

And hearing someone’s voice humanizes a conversation, Minson says, who advocates for conversations in person or over the phone. In some circumstances, someone may consider writing a letter if they feel they usually shut down and cannot get their thoughts across in a conversation, Kar says, or identify as a people pleaser. 

If you notice you’re tired, angry, hungry, or lonely, it may not be the right time for you to engage in a meaningful difficult conversation, says John Bracaglia, CEO and co-founder of Marvin, a teletherapy support platform for healthcare professionals 

Know when to walk away 

The hardest thing can be leaving an argument unresolved. But in the vein of not being able to fix or change anyone, it’s important to know when to throw the towel in. 

“There are always going to be people in our lives, who are not able to give us what we want, especially on an emotional level,” Kar says. 

It’s up to each person to decide when it’s doing more harm than good to keep on fighting for a resolution. If you feel like the effort you’re making to continuously have a difficult conversation isn’t going anywhere and affects your quality of life, it’s time to take a step back. 

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