You look forward to spending time with your closest friends and family. You enjoy the comfort that comes from being with people who have known you for many years. It's a wonderful feeling to be able to just be yourself.
But if you feel a pain in the pit of your stomach just thinking about certain topics being raised, you're not alone. Perhaps one of your best childhood friends has different political beliefs, or your parents want religion to play a different role in your life, or there's a long-standing resentment with your siblings that never seems to truly go away.
You believe that love is more important than what you tell yourself are "petty differences of opinion," and yet you struggle to just let things go.
All you really want is simply to enjoy being together. You want it to be easy to talk and laugh and have fun.
If certain conversations seem to spoil your time together, here are some things to think about.
What's the goal of this conversation?
1. Is it to change someone's mind?
If you're passionate about this topic, it's likely that others are equally passionate about their perspectives. This is why conversations can get heated so quickly. If your goal is truly to change someone's mind, you're jeopardizing the stability of the relationship.
2. Is your goal to "agree to disagree"?
This is a really good strategy when it works. When all parties have the same goal, people know which topics to dance around and everyone complies with the unspoken rules.
You may wonder why it doesn't always work. There are two likely reasons. First, not everyone is on board with the goal, or second, that topic is so important that avoiding it is causing distance in the relationship.
3. Is your goal to maintain closeness despite vastly different opinions?
It is possible to maintain close relationships even when you profoundly disagree. If you have tried agreeing to disagree and understand that you can't change one another's minds, take this advice instead.
These tips are based on a synthesis of the science of relationship researcher Dr. John Gottman, who has been analyzing relationships for over 40 years, and creator of System Centered Therapy, Yvonne Agazarian.
Follow this advice to have a productive conversation with your loved ones. We recommend that you find a time to sit down and have a respectful dialogue. It is best if the conversation happens face to face and privately (i.e., not at a large family gathering and not over text).
1. Don't try to persuade (no matter how sure you are that you're right).
As much as you may want to, avoid the impulse to try to change the minds of the people with whom you are speaking. Of course you want your friends and family to see things the way you do. It seems like all you have to do is explain why you are correct and then you can win them over to your side. While your intention is good, it will likely make others feel misunderstood by you and thus try to persuade you of why their perspective is the correct one. This is frustrating for everyone.
2. Remember that conflict is normal.
Just because you love someone doesn't mean you'll agree with them about all the things that are important to you. It's frustrating and sometimes a bit frightening when you realize just how different your views are. Try to remind yourself that your worldview becomes richer and more sophisticated as a result of understanding a variety of points of view, whether you agree with them or not.
3. Put the conversation on pause as soon as it starts to get heated.
When we have strong feelings of anger, sadness, or fear, our bodies go into self-protection mode (flight/fight). When this happens, people no longer have access to the most rational parts of their brains. Productive conversation will no longer occur if even one person becomes flooded with emotion. If this happens, stop, take a breather, and agree to continue the conversation later.
4. Look for similarities.
It is human nature to feel connected when you notice similarities and to feel distance when you notice differences. If you look closely you will be able to find a kernel of truth in what you are hearing. This means temporarily putting aside your counterargument while your energy is focused on understanding a different point of view.
5. Remember that everything feels more intense when you care deeply for someone.
You may have noticed the people with whom you are closest elicit the strongest feelings in you—both positive and negative. It helps to keep that in perspective when managing conflict. Try to respond with the same measured reaction you might offer a casual acquaintance.
6. Reframe judgment with passion.
If you are feeling judged or judgmental, you are not alone. Judgment is simply what results from having a strong opinion about what is right and what is wrong. Your loved ones have different opinions than you. This is inevitable.
The moment you recognize judgment within yourself or coming toward you, try replacing it with the concept of "passion." For example, "We are both passionate about the direction our country is going."
7. Avoid hyperbole.
The following words are very likely to escalate any difficult conversation and should be avoided:
- The worst
- The best
- The only
Express facts as facts and opinions as opinions.
8. Avoid insults and name calling at all costs.
I know this goes without saying, but passionate conversations can sometimes bring out the worst in us. Try to remember that inflammatory language increases conflict. Your goal is to have a respectful conversation. If an insult comes toward you, it's time to take a break.
By trying out some of these tips, you'll get one step closer to more peaceful visits with your friends and family!