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How to handle stressful conversations during the holidays like a pro

Rather than attempting to eliminate all forms of conflict, Kramer suggests doing what you can to ensure that arguments “don’t escalate into greater expressions of anger or contempt or other forms of negative behaviors and emotions.” Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

Family. They’re your flesh and blood—and sometimes they know all the buttons to push.

As we head home for the holidays, it’s important to relax and recharge. But that’s not always easy, especially when opinions clash and conversations become heated. Laurie Kramer, professor of applied psychology in the Bouvé College of Health Sciences at Northeastern, has some tips for dealing with that tension.

Here’s what to do when…

You start to wonder how you could be related
“Our families are people that we love, that love us, and that we have a lot of shared experiences and connections with in lots of different ways,” Kramer said. But despite all this, it’s possible for people within the same family to have completely different viewpoints.

“Trying to understand each other’s perspectives, even though you might not agree with one another, is really the goal here,” Kramer said. What new information, evidence, or facts could you bring to the conversation? Focus on those, rather than honing in on the other person being “wrong,” “bad,” or “misinformed.”

Maybe a relative’s divergent perspective is just as valid. Maybe not. In either case, here’s Kramer’s suggestion: “Disconnect that specific disagreement from our feelings about our relationship with this individual, to the degree that it’s possible.” 

Someone (inevitably) brings up politics
It’s been a politically contentious year. If you can’t—or don’t want to—avoid talking about politics, Kramer encourages us to try and seek some common ground.

“For example, you might both agree that it’s important for children in the U.S. to have access to healthcare, but you may have very different ideas about how to make that happen—who should pay for it, what kind of availability there should be, what the law should state,” Kramer explained.

If there’s a shared value at the core of the argument, finding it may help you maintain a positive connection with that family member, even when you disagree on specific policies or laws.

Grandma asks, “What are you doing with your life?”
No one likes being grilled about his or her job, school work, choice of significant other, or financial habits. These topics are notorious triggers of conflict. But Kramer reminds us that not all conflict is bad. In fact, “Conflict can be very helpful—if it is constructive—in giving us a better sense of who we are, and in our identity development,” she said.

Think about it this way: if we never experienced conflict, we’d never build skills for how to manage those negative feelings and negotiate some form of an agreement. And conflict helps us forge opinions and beliefs that make us who we are.

Rather than attempting to eliminate all forms of conflict, Kramer suggests doing what you can to ensure that arguments “don’t escalate into greater expressions of anger or contempt or other forms of negative behaviors and emotions.”

The gloves come off
In a household rife with sibling rivalry, chestnuts might not be the only thing getting roasted.

To avoid a back-and-forth with brothers, sisters, cousins, or other combative relatives, it can be helpful to take a moment and breathe before immediately countering a feisty comment. Kramer also encourages us to try to identify what’s really behind the attack.

“Is it to try to make a point? Does it have something to do with maintaining a positive or negative relationship with someone? Is it a competitive or rivalrous type of relationship?” she asked. “Take a second to calm down, try to get a little bit more control over your behavior and emotions, and think about what it is you really want to have happen. Then, see what you can do to make that happen.”