The Ultimate Guide to Holiday Conversations 

Research-based tips for keeping your holiday conversations alive and civil.

Posted Dec 14, 2019

Lisa Fotios/Pexels
Source: Lisa Fotios/Pexels

A recent article in the Houston Chronicle reminds readers of the importance of small talk despite the seemingly universal inclination to avoid it at all costs. With holiday parties upon us, the article provides timely tips for navigating small talk, such as bringing energy to the table and really listening.

I research difficult family conversations. The number-one question I get asked is, “How can I talk to my family about controversial topics (like politics) without getting into a huge conflict?” Most people then share how tense their family holiday conversations have been in the past and express a desire to avoid these conversations, or even the holidays, altogether.

Below, I have compiled advice on two aspects of the classic holiday family conversation: how to get the conversation started, and how to keep the conversation civil. I finish with a disclaimer about topic avoidance. Spoiler: Sometimes, it is the healthiest option.

To get the conversation started:

1. Use free information. Free information includes all the things that people say when they answer a question that provide little hints and opportunities for follow-up questions and connections.

2. Look up what they’ve been doing lately on social media. You don’t have to admit to cyberstalking your cousin, but you could casually ask if they’ve been anywhere recently if you happen to know they went to Tahoe over the summer.

3. Ask questions. When in doubt, remember that most people love to talk about themselves. Ask open-ended questions to get them talking and increase your chances of finding some “free information” to follow up on. Some people might feel put on the spot if you do too much of this in front of others. To be safe, have these conversations one-on-one instead of in a large group.

To keep the conversation civil:

1. Listen! Actually, don’t just listen. Use active listening. Active listening is listening with your whole body. Make eye contact, turn your body toward your family members, encourage them to keep speaking, and let them know you are interested in what they have to say.

2. Use perspective-taking to show empathy and find common ground you can agree on. If you grew up with this person, you likely share some common values or beliefs. Keep those in mind, and try to see the issue from their point of view.

Who can better step into our shoes than those who have known us our whole lives? The reverse is also true. Remember the hard things your family member has gone through and try to see their motivation for thinking/feeling/believing the way they do.

3. Remember the universal needs of (a) being well-liked and (b) being able to make our own choices. People generally want to feel respected and approved of. If you keep this in mind, you can keep from unnecessarily disrespecting or disapproving of your family member and shutting down the conversation, or worse yet, escalating conflict.

People also like to feel like they have control and can make their own decisions. Whenever we tell someone they are wrong, and we are right, or that they should be doing (or believing) something different than what they are currently doing (or believing), they can feel threatened and shut down or lash out. Instead, make suggestions rather than demands. 

4. Use visualization. Try to imagine the positive things that could come out of a good-quality conversation over the holidays before you arrive at your uncle or aunt’s house. These types of visualizations can be helpful in reducing communication anxiety. Lowering those anxious feelings can help you stay “in the moment” and be present during family conversations.

5. If things get heated, take a break. If you feel your heart beating faster and feel generally flustered, you may be experiencing flooding. Flooding is a physiological response that people sometimes have to conflict, where their fight-or-flight reaction is triggered, and they can no longer process information or listen very well. This is not a great state to be in if your goal is to spend quality time with your family.

To leave without hurting their feelings, let your family members know that the conversation is important to you and that you just need a few minutes to cool down so you can really listen. Always let them know when you will be back to resume your talk—a nice 20-30-minute walk outside should be enough for your body to calm down.

5. Perhaps the most difficult piece of advice to follow is this: Maintain your family relationships the rest of the year. It will be easier to take your family members’ perspective and engage in meaningful conversation if you actually know the person well and are friends outside of this one interaction. If you care about the person, make an effort to keep in better contact throughout the year.

If all else fails, avoid controversial topics. You can choose to avoid topics on your own (without others knowing you’ve pre-planned which topics to avoid), or the family can agree together to avoid certain topics.

American culture supports an “Ideology of Openness” that falsely claims that open communication is always best. “Good” families are able to talk about anything and everything, right? Wrong! Research shows that topic avoidance can be a way to maintain healthy relationships, especially if you know that certain topics lead to unproductive conflict without fail.

Want to know more? Read this article on family conversations during the holidays.