Harmony for the Holidays: Advice on holding difficult conversations


By Kristen Lucas and Andrew Plumley

Stephen Colbert and SNL have joked about them; NPR has asked listeners to call-in about them. At home or in the workplace, we’ve all found ourselves in conversations where disagreement is sure to follow the introduction of certain topics. While conventional wisdom says to avoid politics in civil discourse, that’s a tough standard to adhere to in these politically charged times where new and important current events trend every day (see: Charlottesville, mass shootings, #metoo). Whether you call them difficult, crucial, or courageous, these conversations are especially hard to avoid as families and friends gather for the holidays.

At ProInspire, we recently led a training for one of our partner organizations on some of the best practices you can use to have more confidence and effectively engage in these conversations. As you head out for some much-deserved downtime, here are a few of our tips, as well as some resources we’ve curated, to help keep things peaceful, respectful, and productive around your holiday gatherings.

  • Listen. How you listen is just as important as what you say. What is your response or reaction to others? Think about how your body language, eye contact, and attitude impact how your engagement and intent are perceived. Are you listening to understand, or listening to defend/respond? Seek understanding through open-ended questions to inquire about others’ opinions, then inform them of your own with ‘I’ statements.

  • Set realistic goals for yourself. What is the conflict, and what is your intended outcome? In some situations, you’ll want to dig deep and address the issue fully. In other situations, you’ll be inclined to take just the first step. Don’t assume you know everything – look for common ground and shared values. Maybe you won’t be able to influence actions and beliefs, but you can share another perspective to consider.

  • Choose the right time. You probably won’t change hearts and minds at the holiday dinner table. Think about when is the right time for you to engage, and when others will be in a good place to hear you. When conflict arises in your conversations, decide if you should engage now, address it later, or let it go.

  • Consider the relationship. If you choose to let it go, you have to truly and sincerely do so. You may think you are playing it safe to not engage, but if you hold on to the conflict, it will still be there — and can come back! Whether you choose to address it now or later, think about how you can restore the relationship in the end, even if you agree to disagree. If you don’t care enough about the relationship to restore it in some way, it may not have been worth it to engage in the conversation in the first place.

The most important thing to remember is that navigating these conversations relies on the good communication skills you already have; you just have to remember to employ them when you feel triggered or emotional as conflict arises. As you head home for holidays or set intentions for the new year, may you find confidence and strength for the difficult and crucial conversations ahead!

Kristen Lucas and Andrew Plumley are Senior Program Managers at ProInspire.

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