Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

4 Ways to Keep Your Cool When Conversations Get Too Hot

No one wants to be remembered as the person who ruined the party for others.

Key points

  • Avoiding hot topics is best at family gatherings, but there's always someone who won't let an issue go.
  • There are right ways and wrong ways to handle discussions on even the most sensitive subjects.
  • You can be remembered as the guest who started the fire or the guest who was able to contain the blaze.

There’s something about the holiday gatherings that brings out the best and the worst of us. It seems that the larger the gathering, the higher the stress on the host, and the more opportunities for disagreements and diverse perspectives among the guests. Because most extended families only get together a few times a year, it is important to remember that each gathering offers a stage for interactions that may linger in the memory, for good and bad, until and often beyond the next gathering. If you don’t want to be remembered as the cousin/sibling/parent/aunt/uncle that ruined the holiday by starting or engaging in an unwinnable argument, think before you speak.

4 "Hostess Gifts" That May Save the Event From Ruin

Always bring these four items to any gathering with people you care about:

  1. Willingness to be wrong
  2. Curiosity about others’ viewpoints
  3. Skepticism about your own views
  4. Courage to admit you don’t know

No matter how sensitive the topic may be, these four things will help keep disagreements from turning into all-out warfare.

When someone holds opposing views from you and they are doing their best to bait you, do your best to remain unengaged. It takes two to start an argument, so keep your cool and step away. This might be the best holiday gift you’ve ever given your host or their family.

4 Points to Bear in Mind When Someone Just Won't Drop the Hot Topic

If a family member just can’t let an issue go, and you want to maintain a sense of harmony, do these four things:

  1. Recognize that no matter how diverse you are, family and friendship bonds often run deeper.
  2. Have empathy and try to see the world through the other person’s eyes.
  3. Be willing to recognize the “issue” isn’t the sum total of all the parts that make up that person.
  4. Always be willing to agree to disagree.

We don’t show up at social or family gatherings ready to have our minds changed on hot-button issues, so don’t go into an event expecting to change other people’s views. Focus on the reason that you’re gathering with these people and recognize that family gatherings are time-limited events. There’s never a reason not to treat others with the respect that we want to be shown.

8 Rules of Engagement for Rousing Dinner-Table Discussions

  1. Criticize political actions or legislative issues; don’t criticize the family member who supports them.
  2. Don’t belittle family members whose beliefs don’t match your own—this can create lasting grudges and hurt feelings that can mar family gatherings for years.
  3. Keep the conversation as positive as possible by focusing on the good things that political figures are trying to do, not just the questionable or incomprehensible actions.
  4. Remember that family members feel allegiance to and a sense of shared identity with their candidates and officeholders just like an enthusiastic sports fan tends to do. When you insult their “pick,” family members feel as if you have insulted them.
  5. When you stumble into a topic that has a “hair trigger feel,” invite your family member to help you better understand their point of view—ask questions, be curious, be open to hearing how your family member sees the world.
  6. When asked to share your opinions, do so with maturity and focus on facts, not emotions. Caring deeply about a topic will come through in your discussion but maintain respect for the ones in the room who don’t share your feelings. Model for your family how to discuss sensitive topics without doing harm.
  7. When things start to head into directions from which there may be no room for friendly debate, change the subject by throwing in a question about the point of dissension in such a way that it switches the track like a railroad station switch might do. If you’re headed into topics like gun control, change the subject and find a memory of when you learned to hunt. If you’re headed into women’s rights or same-sex marriage, invite a relative to talk about what it was like to be the only woman in the family to ever serve in the armed services or an uncle what it was like to come out to the family. Find the link that provides a natural segue and brings the topic home to a shared memory or family narrative that puts a positive spin on a topic that is spinning into chaos.
  8. If you want to truly manifest change in the world, you might have better luck reaching beyond the family and joining up with others who see the world the way you do—there’s power in numbers. However, convincing Aunt Margaret to stand up for her rights as a senior citizen and help her write a letter to her representatives is creating a significant change in itself. Start local, think global. And remember that if it weren’t for your family, you wouldn’t be who you are today. Offer gratitude to them for that turn of events in itself.