Being home for the holidays is one of the great joys of life. Reuniting with friends, family, and loved ones after months or possibly years apart, given the obvious and unmentionable events of the past 18 months, is a wonderful feeling.
At least, it should be. For most of us, as much as we love our family, there are more often than not some pronounced generational divides and off-limit topics that are best left at the door. Of course, after everyone’s had a glass or two, those topics inevitably come up and can range from the benign to the fundamental and even toxic.
As much as we want to go home and enjoy the time off, knowing we’re more than likely going to have to navigate some touchy terrain amongst extended family can be off-putting. The Christmas argument itself is almost as traditional as the Christmas tree.
So, in preparation for the holiday season, here’s our guide to steering through that rocky territory and coming out the other end with relationships intact.
Leo Tolstoy wrote that “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” While one set of rules or principles might work in navigating one set of family dynamics, they might not for another. This is why there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to dealing with difficult topics.
Setting boundaries is crucial to blocking off or establishing perimeters around topics that you know are only going to spark debate and lead everyone down a dark path. That could be anything from sex and sexuality, to COVID, relationships, race, politics, mental health, religion, dietary choices, gender, or simply how you’re supposed to eat a meat pie.
In today’s society we’re more polarised than ever, so it’s unlikely that you’re going to see eye-to-eye with everyone around the table on these issues. Conflict will happen but how you deal with it is key.
Everyone has their own limits on what topics they’ll want to cover, or how far they’re willing to go and, in most cases, everyone else also thinks they’re just as right as you think you are about a particular topic and they can be confronting in wanting to ‘correct you’.
Being able to say something like ‘I don’t think we’re going to agree here’ before swiftly moving on to another topic tells the other person that this isn’t territory you’re willing to go down. People aren’t stupid and will sense when something is making you uncomfortable. Going to grab a drink or a bathroom break or even a quick walk (if you can sneak off unnoticed) is going to imply that this isn’t a conversation worth having.
Of course, if you’re close with your family and you know that shutting them down quickly isn’t going to set them off, you can afford to be more forceful with statements like ‘you know we don’t agree on this,’ ‘we don’t need to bring that up’ or ‘let’s leave it there’. Gauging the level of offence you’re going to cause by closing someone down is important but so is protecting your own mental health and not getting dragged into heated discussions is all part of that.
If you’re forced to engage, it’s important to remember that people who hold differing views are not monsters. While social media might condition us to think that way, really there is always common ground or shared beliefs that you can clean on.
It’s important first of all to understand what kind of dynamic your family has when it comes to communication. Researchers in the US have identified four types of family communication styles that differ across ‘conversational orientation’ and ‘conformity’.
Those with high conversation and low conformity are referred to as pluralistic. These are families who openly and frequently engage in conversation across a range of difficult topics but respect each other’s viewpoints and embrace disagreement. If this is yours, understanding that managing your emotions is crucial and that tolerance and acceptance of others is going to be important here.
Those with high conversation and high conformity levels are called consensual families. These are families who talk a lot, but not about topics that might cause arguments. They value cohesion above all else so are unlikely to want to bring up certain topics. If this is your family type, be aware that bringing up certain topics could cause problems but by relating personal experience with emotional openness you should be able to bridge them.
Families with low conversation and low conformity have a laissez-faire orientation and they generally don’t speak about controversial issues nor do they really want to or care about them. If this is your family type, you might just have to accept that a particular topic you find incredibly interesting or are passionate about may not be reciprocated.
Protective families have high conformity levels and low conversations are the trickiest as trust is built not through open communication. Discussing difficult topics in these families can lead to ridicule or avoidance and this is where you would do best to try and maintain harmony amongst everyone rather than pushing an issue.
Agreeing to disagree can be the best option amongst families with high conformity types as putting your family above your own values is well regarded.
Still, trying to foster empathy within the group is a good way of grappling with difficult topics by approaching them with an understanding of what that other person is experiencing. Hearing them out beyond the simple catchphrases or cultural reference points and understanding why it is they feel that way is an important path to forming new connections. Plus, people who feel listened to are far more likely to listen back.
If none of the above works and you find yourself routinely boxed in by awkward topics, sometimes it’s better to simply nod along if what they’re saying is tolerable to you. If not, remember that the person who loses their cool first in a debate comes off worse, so try and practice your mindfulness before getting into the thick of it.