Staying "MERRY" at the Dinner Table this Holiday Season 

Recently, I was asked for some advice about how to keep the holidays 'happy' and free of argument or disagreement. Since my own family is now very small, we have fewer opinions to navigate, however, every family has someone, like a crotchety Aunt or Uncle or cousin - who likes to debate and argue. This year, you can use these tips and tools to help diffuse challenging situations. Keep your gatherings "MERRY" this holiday season. 


Staying "MERRY" At The Dinner Table - How to Disagree and Remain Civil

The winter holidays are a time to eat delicious food, celebrate and count our blessings with the people we hold dear. But what happens when pleasant chit-chats turn into hurtful disagreement? 

Researcher Brené Brown asked about the similarity of opinion to other family members and found that only 25% said they were generally in agreement with family. The rest described everything from mild embarrassment to absolute mortification, when it came to sharing their family members’ beliefs, especially around politics. We know that there are always differing opinions around politics and just about every other subject, and sometimes these topics come forward when you feel trapped around the dinner table.

There’s actually a few simple conversational recipes to keep the peace at the dinner table this holiday season, for example: ask three parts “question” to one part “statement.” By asking a lot more than telling, we can have more civil, engaging conversations, even with those who don’t share our views!

It's important to understand that rarely do family members with divergent beliefs, end up seeing eye to eye. More often than not, they continue to disagree. When issues are contentious, conversations can turn ugly, and then strain even the best of relationships.

This is another reason holidays can become a source of anxiety, rather than an opportunity to spend some precious time together. Many times families end up arguing about the same issues, year after year. It doesn’t have to be like this. You CAN be civil with a loved one, even when you don’t share their beliefs and views.

Next time you find a conversation turning ugly, follow one of these strategies:

Understand the source of disagreement

People have different motivations for holding various beliefs and coming to a particular conclusion. When you ask a question, you are showing you care about that person. Until you understand the underlying reasons, it will be difficult to have any conciliatory interaction (let alone come to an agreement about something). 

As you seek to understand where the other person is coming from, you’re less likely to draw false assumptions about their views or their character. You’ll  also become better able to explain your point of view, once you can see things from their side because you'll have a clear starting point.

Recognize the opportunity to listen to another person’s story

In conflict, there is rarely a winner. The other person won’t have any chance of seeing your point of view, if you’re not willing to do the work of listening to theirs. Questions need to be fueled by curiosity because it’s difficult to be civil when two people are set on "winning the argument". 

Trick your brain into listening by asking them to tell a personal story when you’re discussing a sensitive issue. For example, you might ask them, "Where were you the first time you thought about .... this way?"  It’s a lot more difficult to “attack” someone's point of view, when they are telling the story of their lived experience.

When you’re genuinely curious, you open your mind to new information, and the other party feels like you’re making an effort to understand their point of view. Be open to learning something new and move yourself into a state of cooperation. As long as you’re open to learning something from somebody who sees things differently, you’ll get through the holidays without any broken dishes or hurt feelings. 

Disagree with the idea, not the person

Disagreement doesn’t have to be hurtful. No one likes to be told they’re wrong, and very few people respond well to an attack on their character. Separate the point of view from their personal character.

Stay away from phrases with “you” or “your,” and use “I” statements. For example, rather than saying, “How could you possibly come to that conclusion,?” say, “I struggle with that conclusion.” This allows you to center your conversation on the subject matter, and speak about your challenge with an idea, rather than the person who holds a different opinion.

Stay curious about the issue and areas of disagreement. Curiosity can be signaled in simple ways: by listening intently or prefacing your own questions with phrases like, “I’m curious about something…” or “I was wondering about this, and maybe you can help me understand…”  
You can ask a question like “Could we at least agree that…?” and fill in the blank with anything that seems like a reasonable point both sides can accept. This can be a building block to a civil conversation where the discussion focuses on what you both agree on, instead of areas where you disagree.
It’s especially important to “soften” questions when discussing hot-button issues. For instance, instead of “How could you support that candidate?” ask “I’d love to know what you admire most in the candidate you supported. What’s your favorite thing about them?” Then use their answers to try to find some area(s) of agreement. 

Embrace the disagreements

Disagreement can be productive when you resist the idea that you can change someone’s mind about an issue. Research suggests you are unlikely to be able to do that, even if the facts seem to be on your side. However, you don't need to abandon your own beliefs when you are finding some element of the other’s belief that seems reasonable and understandable to you.

Great solutions often come out of synthesizing ideas that are not always aligned with one another. Next time you find yourself feeling like you want to argue about your stance on an issue, listen and acknowledging what the other person has to say. You will gain a greater understanding of the topic, and in turn sharpen your own thinking on the matter.

Prepare for 'those' conversations

Craig Dowden, a positive psychology coach, suggests that the key to achieving civility despite personal disagreements, is preparation. If you know ahead of time that there are people who like to bring up contentious issues or talk about sensitive topics that might trigger you, have a strategy to steer the conversation away.

Dowden recommends saying something along the lines of, “I appreciate your passion, but I feel like this might be a hot topic –perhaps we can talk about something else?” And if the person insists on voicing the arguments, gently name the elephant in the room by gently saying, “I appreciate that you really want to talk about it, but I’m uncomfortable. What is it that keeps you coming back to this topic?”

Framing the conversation takes you away from getting into an argument because you become curious about what they have to say. Dowden reflects that asking questions doesn’t mean you agree with someone, however, it does keep you out of the, “I want to be right” frame of mind. Remaining curious sets up more of a win-win situation between opposing views.

Steer the subject away from contentious issues altogether

Ask questions that move the conversation to a safer place. Prompts like, “What truly binds our family together? What are some of the family accomplishments and traditions we all hold dear? What makes this family good and strong?” are great for reminding everyone that there are certain values that transcend differences.

When you see differences as something you do not have to "fight" about, it means that being civil becomes that much easier.

Adapted from articles written by

Anisa Purbasari Horton and Warren Berger


"Say what you mean, but don't say it meanly." ~ Andrew Watcher

"Silence is golden when an argument is brewing." ~ Clifford Adams

"Discussion is an exchange of knowledge; Argument is an exchange of ignorance." ~ Robert Quillen



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