3 ways to defuse difficult conversations with loved ones this Thanksgiving
The holidays are times of high stress for most people. Between the planning, the rarely-seen relatives you have to get along with, the over- or under-stimulated children underfoot, the cooking, the cleaning, the eating, the entertaining—well, for many people it all gets to be a bit too much. It’s easy to lose your cool and blow your top during the holidays. And that’s not good for you—or for those around you. It’s a near-guarantee that someone at the holiday table is going to say something you profoundly disagree with. But you shouldn’t let negativity win. You’ll have a much happier time avoiding those confrontations, using one of three techniques for navigating difficult conversations we’ll explore today.
But you won’t just be happier. You’ll be healthier too.
All this hate is killing us
You already know that stress and anger aren’t healthy in large doses.
They’re emotions programmed for survival in the jungle—getting away from big cats or punching a bear in the nose.
They’re meant to access short-term bursts of energy for life-saving acts of heroics.
But, today, most of us don’t face life-threatening situations very often. And the stress and anger we feel doesn’t come in short bursts, but is a long, sustained assault on our health.
Stress and anger do all sorts of bad things to you. They can cause headaches and nausea. They raise blood pressure, and can damage your cardiovascular system. Insomnia, anxiety, and depression all can be caused by stress.
Heart attacks and strokes can be triggered by stress and anger—or, likewise, lots of stress can set you up for suffering a stroke or heart attack later.
In short, you want to cut out as much stress from your life as you can. It’s impossible to eliminate all of it—especially during the holiday season, when you’ll be facing stressful situations that are beyond your control.
But stressful conversations don’t have to be one of them—that’s something you can control. Even if you can’t stop the conversation itself, you can stop the stress.
Here are some great ways to de-escalate and eliminate stressful conversations this holiday season.
Conversation tip #1: Don’t engage
The easiest way to avoid a difficult conversation is to avoid stressful topics.
Many times, people just want their voice and viewpoint to be heard. So go ahead and let someone talk if they need to, even if you disagree.
But you don’t have to let that disagreement dictate your response. You don’t have to respond at all.
No one is going to agree with you about everything. And that’s fine—everyone is entitled to their own opinion.
What’s more, arguing with someone is more likely to harden their position, not change it. So why bother getting yourself worked up when it’s counterproductive in every way?
If someone is all worked up about something, let them let it out. And, instead of opposing them and watching the conversation escalate into shouting, simply disengage. Move on to another topic when an opening presents itself.
That said, sometimes you feel very strongly about an issue, and bottling up your feelings can be detrimental. In that case, there are ways to talk without letting the conversation get too stressful.
Conversation tip #2: Flattery gets you everywhere
Sometimes, your conversation partner simply won’t let it go. Maybe they know your opinion already and are itching for a fight. Or they’ve touched a nerve, and you just can’t let it go unanswered.
Sometimes, the conflict is simply unavoidable.
Correction: Sometimes, the conversation is simply unavoidable. But you can still bypass the conflict.
Believe it or not, flattery can still get you very far in this world. And it can do a lot to defuse any potential stressful conflict.
So, if you’re forced to engage, do it with lots of compliments. Do it by recognizing all the things you agree about, instead of focusing on the few issues where you disagree.
And don’t try it as the compliment sandwich, either. Research has shown that if you try to compliment someone, then state your critique, and finish with another compliment, it doesn’t work.
The critique blows the original compliment out of your listener’s mind, and they don’t even hear the second compliment, because they are focused on the critique.
Instead, try the blown away technique. Start off with your critique, and then follow it up with a gusher of compliments. By the time you’re done, they’ll have wiped away the ill feelings of the disagreement, and will have softened the response.
After all, it’s hard to get mad at someone who’s saying a bunch of nice things about you.
That might look something like, “Cousin Jimmy, I disagree with you on Politician X. But that’s ok—I love you, I think you’re raising an amazing family, the integrity you show is second to none, that was an amazing casserole you brought by the way, I respect your judgment on so many things, thanks so much for playing with little nephew Joey earlier also, and by the way, who do you think will win the game tomorrow? You know football so well!”
It’s going to be very hard for Cousin Jimmy to stay angry through all of that. Not to mention, you now have a great opportunity to steer the conversation to safer waters.
Conversation tip #3: Listen and question
I’m sure you know that many people spend most of their conversation time thinking about what they want to say next.
That’s doubly true when you’re in a stressful conversation about a passionate topic.
But the best way to keep your emotions from rising in uncomfortable ways it to bypass the common response of planning your next line of attack.
Instead, do what Socrates does. Listen carefully to what your conversation partner is saying. And ask plenty of questions about their views.
This does a few things. For one, it stops you from building lines of attack and defense. It gets you out of the warring position that’s so common in stressful conversations.
For another, it helps your partner release their own emotions in a safe way. Often, just getting their thoughts out, without interruption, is enough to defuse any mounting tension.
It also helps you see things from another perspective. They are trying so hard to tell you how they see the world. Let them. If you have empathy for their viewpoint, it will be nearly impossible to be angry or stressed, even if you disagree.
Asking questions helps you hone that listening response—you can’t ask questions if you aren’t listening to points. It is also a way to allow your points to come out in a non-confrontational way.
That means your questions shouldn’t sound like, “How can you believe that stupid lie?”
They should sound more like, “You make some good points, but how would you address X instead?”
Let someone else build out their worldview for you. Half the time, you’ll figure out that you’re in heated agreement—you’re disagreeing more about the meaning of specific words and terms, rather than the substance of discussion.
And for times of true disagreement, at least you’re having a constructive conversation—trying to work together to find common ground and solutions—rather than a destructive one, trying to beat each other’s view.
Attacking someone’s viewpoint will never work, and will leave both sides feeling bad. But working towards common ground will leave you both feeling better, even if you never find it.
At least you’re truly conversing, rather than shouting past each other.
The most important thing in all of these stressful conversations is to remember: You don’t have to agree on everything. In fact, you should expect disagreements to crop up with just about everyone, if you dig long enough.
Don’t spend your energy obsessing over those disagreements or trying to change everyone. Accept the world and the people in it as they are. Engage in pleasant, meaningful ways.
If you do, whether you reach consensus or not, at least you’ll avoid spiking your blood pressure. And, during the stresses of the holiday season, sometimes that’s enough to count as a win.
- Lesser, Drew H. Diffuse The Dispute: 8 Ways To De-escalate A Heated Argument. The Science of Happiness. Published Sep 13, 2015. Accessed Nov 3, 2016.
- Spencer, Stephan. The Art of Listening and Maneuvering Difficult Conversations: Mark Goulston. Optimized Geek. Published Nov 5, 2015. Accessed Nov 3, 2016.
- Barker, Eric. 5 Expert Ways To Deal With Difficult People—And Make Them Love You. Time. Published Jul 9, 2014. Accessed Nov 4, 2016.
- Anger—How It Affects You. Better Health Channel. Accessed Nov 6, 2016.
Last Updated: November 26, 2019
Originally Published: November 21, 2016