How not to talk about politics and wars. Northeastern psychologist offers advice to survive the holidays

people sitting around a table together
A sense of curiosity may help you navigate those contentious family dinners, says Laurie Kramer, professor of applied psychology at Northeastern. Photo by Getty Images

Based on the promise of time off from work or school, reunions with family amid good food and drink, a renewed spiritual focus (for those so inclined) and presents—don’t forget those gifts—the holiday season has every reason to fulfill expectations as “the best time of the year.” 

Why then do so many people approach the celebrations with a sense of dread?

headshot of laurie kramer
Laurie Kramer, professor of applied psychology at Northeastern. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

“We have these expectations that the holidays should bring us joy—for our family to be harmonious—when we know that real families are a mixed bag,” says Laurie Kramer, professor of applied psychology at Northeastern. “They’re full of love and support and connection. But there’s also conflict and annoyances and irritation and all of that.”

Then there’s that grandfather, aunt or nephew who you hardly ever see—and who you know is going to upset the annual family dinner with opinions on politics, pandemics, and wars in Ukraine and Gaza.

“Seeing relatives who may have very different outlooks on the world right now—particularly when our nation is so divided—can be something to dread because you don’t want to deal with that level of conflict at a time where you’re hoping to enjoy your family,” Kramer says. “You were hoping that you would walk away from the holidays feeling good about yourself and your connections to your family, and it can be hard to achieve that.”

In this Q&A, Kramer offers perspective on how to preemptively defuse sensitive topics while maintaining a sense of curiosity and focusing on what really matters. Her comments have been edited for brevity and clarity.

How can families deal with differences of opinion while maintaining peace?

As much as you can prior to the holidays, if you can set some ground rules about what the conversation over the dinner table is going to be, I think that would be really helpful. 

If you want the holidays to be a time of connection and meaning for families, why not find some areas of common ground to base those conversations around? And then you can agree to disagree about the other things. I know it’s all going to leak out anyway. But you can at least prepare for those encounters by saying, “Let’s not talk about politics this year. Let’s not talk about vaccines.”

Give people topics like, “Let’s just talk about what we’re grateful for,” and then spend 15 minutes going around the table sharing that. Or maybe you can use this as a time to update people on some of the things that have happened over the past year that have been important to them that they may not have had the opportunity to really talk about—that would be awesome.

Those are excellent ideas. What if they don’t work?

Give the kids the floor. That’s always a safe area. Have the kids start conversations about what they’re grateful for, what this holiday means to them. Give them some projects—artwork or activities that could be the centerpiece of the day. Because that’s what the holidays are about for many families: Showering love upon the people they care about, especially their kids.

Do you struggle personally with these issues of family during the holidays?

I would say everyone has to work hard at these things, including myself. 

I’m always trying to get in someone’s head. Because I’m a psychologist, I want to know what kinds of experiences led that person to have that point of view. So it leads me to try to approach conflicts from a vantage point of being curious and trying to understand someone else’s perspective, and realizing that my point of view is not the only one that could be valid. I think that sense of being curious has helped me de-escalate conflicts, which is what we’re really talking about here. 

If you just tell someone that they’re wrong and your viewpoint is right, then you’re escalating the conflict because the other person has to respond and defend their perspective. But if you can open it up and say, “Here’s what makes me say this. What makes you say that?” Then that’s where you can make some headway.

Some topics are more volatile than others. But if you can understand what’s behind that sense of wanting to be right, then the topic doesn’t really matter all that much. It can lead to constructive conversations and better understanding of one another, if not agreement. And I think it’s so important that kids witness these types of constructive discussions where opposing views are voiced, because they’re going to learn some strategies that they can apply to the conflicts that they experience.

Many families were prevented from having reunions due to COVID-19 restrictions in recent years. Have any benefits been drawn from those restrictions?

We had a couple of years where it was very disappointing and sad that we could not see all the people that we loved. We had holidays that were more low-key, that probably included fewer people. We were more cautious about not getting people sick, and travel was difficult—or canceled. 

But we also were able to slow the world down a little bit, particularly during those times when we had lockdown. It was a very challenging set of years, but I think we learned something about what was truly important to families. It was about dedicating that time to one another and truly appreciating family relationships.

We now have a great opportunity for families to think about what they actually might have liked about the past two years. There might be some value in thinking about what we got from those quieter holidays when we were simply together. How can we preserve those elements now and in the future?

Messaging from the media is that the holidays should be glorious. What is a reasonable expectation for this time of year?

It goes back to that idea of being intentional, of reflecting upon what’s important to you about these holidays, and the meaning that it has for you and your family—and then moving forward with that in mind.

If you consider the holidays as a time to be grateful for what we have, maybe that would lead people to want to give back in some ways. What we see in the media can provide some good suggestions of things that the family or parts of the family could do, like coming up with a mitten drive, for example. 

Finding simple ways to do things together could provide a teachable moment for kids: To think about the holidays as not just about receiving gifts, but about our place in the world and what we have that we’re grateful for—including those we love. How can we help others experience those things too?

Ian Thomsen is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email him at Follow him on Twitter @IanatNU.