Home for the Holidays
(or, how to talk to your family and not kill each other)
This year we’ve been hearing from all sorts of people that they want to use Living Room Conversations skills to help heal family relationships. People have experienced loss of or harm to treasured relationships because of politics. And now with the holidays coming up they are considering how to navigate. Does love supersede politics? For most people it does. But there is still confusion and hurt to manage. How do we do this? How can we listen to each other and hold the tension of our differences?
For years we’ve told people that family is one situation where we are not fully confident that Living Room Conversations will work. Why? Because family is known for breaking host and guest social norms. Because family knows each other’s triggers and because family relations often require more of us. Emotional stakes tend to be higher, conversations are colored by history and it can feel easier to take the proverbial gloves off and fight dirty, unconstrained by the politeness we give others. But in most instances, we can love our family, even when we don’t like what they believe!
Listening is powerful. It doesn’t mean you agree. Just giving someone your full attention is a valuable gift. People rarely change their beliefs in a conversation; but people often expand understanding through conversation. Focus on learning and sharing rather than debating or convincing. To do so you can:
Ask thoughtful questions, inspired by whatever honest curiosity you feel
Try to understand, not convince or persuade
Share personal stories and experiences, not data points
Notice if there are areas of agreement.
Assume good intentions and extend the benefit of the doubt
Thoughtfully end the conversation when you are triggered or tired
Share appreciation for having the conversation
Generous listening. Listen deeply, without an intention to respond, refute, or defend. Just listen.
Assume good intent. Give the person the benefit of the doubt.
Genuine curiosity. Show curiosity by asking questions and learning more about the person’s life experiences that have shaped their perspective.
Respectful engagement. Showing respect and kindness can diffuse a great deal of tension and it’s often contagious.
Insults or name-calling. Using unflattering names or making derogatory remarks about people that the other person cares about (including political leaders) are fighting words.
Overgeneralizing. Beware of using words like “you always” and “you never.” They are seldom true, and these words tend to feel attacking.
Leading questions. Steer clear of asking questions designed to “trap” the person or lead them to a pre-determined answer you want to hear.
Talking more than listening. It is rare to make progress on understanding a different perspective while doing the majority of the talking.
Facts, figures, and data-points. Few things shut down a good conversation faster than cold, hard, facts…and alternative facts! Focus on concerns and experiences rather than data.
Set the stage. Establish your interest in an enjoyable, productive conversation rather than a debate or argument.
Listen for values and desired outcomes. Most of us have core values that overlap (health, safety, prosperity). Identifying these can help strengthen the relationship.
Verify and acknowledge feelings. Ask about, and seek to understand what the other person is feeling about the topic. They may have very personal experiences that shape their perspective. Be aware of these feelings and acknowledge them.
Use humor, if possible. Be willing to laugh at yourself when and where appropriate. Humor can lighten the mood and make the conversation enjoyable.
First-person language. Own your feelings and express them as “I felt ______(feeling) when you ______ (describe specific behavior and when it occurred). For example, “I felt frustrated when you said I was unrealistic this morning.”
Explore and reflect rather than disagree directly. For example, starting sentences with “I am wondering….” can be very productive if it is sincere.
Find common ground. Look for and acknowledge areas of agreement.
Use engaging language. See how often you can replace “but” with “and”
Ask open-ended questions. This allows others to think out loud and may offer a better path for understanding their perspective.
Keep a light tone. When judgement creeps in, your tone will give you away! If this happens, own it, apologize and ask another question.
Families know where all the buttons are. What happens if they get pushed? Avoid responding when you know you are triggered and feel yourself being defensive and/or needing to be right. Sometimes, letting go of the conversation is the best course of action. A break for a short walk or new activity or change of subject can help restore equanimity. Try the following to change the direction of a conversation and/or mend a conversation that has turned destructive:
Let’s change the topic. Tell me, how is your garden (or other hobby)?
This is a heated conversation. Our relationship is more important to me.
I feel bad when we argue. Let’s stop for now.
I’m sorry we argued. I care about you.
Our relationship will always be more important to me than our differences.