From Thanksgiving to Christmas and graduations to funerals, the dreaded “awkward conversation” can happen during almost any holiday or family reunion.
Be prepared… but also, be open.
See, you can do your best to avoid bringing up sensitive subjects, but you can’t always stop your extended family from dragging you into painful conversations. And once you’re in, you need to get through it without burning what may be an already-tenuous bridge.
Luckily, your next holiday gathering doesn’t have to be a recipe for conversational disaster.
Instead of spending Christmas Eve or your cousin’s wedding avoiding every conversation that isn’t about the weather, try this 4-step survival guide for awkward conversations. It may even help you stop the next argument before it starts.
First, Don’t Set Out to Change Minds
As everyone who’s ever stumbled into one of them knows, the two biggest conversational landmines are politics and theology.
Unfortunately, you can’t just sidestep these two, since nearly every other conversational topic is affected by our ideological beliefs. (If you doubt this, try starting a discussion about all the sexual harassment headlines in Hollywood and then see how fast one of your relatives mentions Trump, Clinton, Franken, or Moore.)
While politics and theology may seem like belief systems that can be changed simply by offering opposing facts and figures, that’s not how our brains work. We reject information that counters our beliefs by default.
Psychologists have proven that people with conservative views process information differently than people with liberal views, which explains why both sides have trouble seeing eye to eye.
But regardless of our political persuasions, we are unlikely to ever change our minds because our sense of identity is partly derived from our beliefs. By that rationale, if we allowed our beliefs to be easily changed, what would that imply about our character? (Actually, it doesn’t imply anything at all, but that’s not how we feel.)
As a result, you already know that you’re probably not going to change anyone’s mind by arguing. And you’re probably not going to allow your own mind to be easily changed, either. Plus, if someone really feels their beliefs are being threatened, they’ll bend over backwards to rationalize their own point of view.
Given all this irrational stonewalling, what’s the point of even having a conversation to begin with?
Because sometimes being exposed to new information can change minds.
Here’s one technique that can actually do the trick.
Rephrase to Clarify
Want to build a quick conversational bridge between you and someone else?
Rephrase what that person is saying, then ask them if they agree with your rephrasing.
By doing this, you can get others to see how their words are being perceived while also challenging them to rethink their own certainty, all without making them feel defensive.
Here’s one example:
If your uncle keeps insisting that “Trump is a fantastic president who really is making America great again, but he’s always getting a raw deal from the liberal media,” you could say…
- “It sounds like you’re saying Trump is a victim of media bias. What are some of the ways he’s been portrayed that you think are unfair?”
- “It sounds like you’re saying Trump has already accomplished some important things. What are some of the things he’s done that you think the media has overlooked?”
- “It sounds like you’re saying Trump is improving the quality of life in America. What are some of the ways your own life is better now that Trump is president?”
Whatever angle you choose to explore, it requires a one-two process:
- Start with “it sounds like you’re saying” followed by your (charitable) interpretation of what you’ve just heard. (This gives your conversant a chance to agree with or correct your framing.)
- Then, ask for examples or clarifications of those claims. (This gives your conversant a chance to reveal new information, or to admit — or maybe even realize — that they don’t have any further evidence to support their own claims.)
Provided that your conversation survives this stage, you’re clear to move on to stage two: reciprocation.
“Okay, granted, but…”
One big reason we get so defensive during conversations is because we tend to believe that any rejection of our ideas is also a rejection of us for believing them.
So, how do you avoid making everyone you talk to feel so defensive that they either have to walk on eggshells or come at you with both logic barrels blazing?
Start by agreeing with them.
Not completely (if you don’t), but at least partially.
Because once you can both find a shared middle ground, then you’re not arguing about extremes; you’re simply debating degrees of difference.
Let’s say your niece believes marijuana should be nationally legalized, but you don’t because you’re concerned that it creates a precedent for the legalization of even more dangerous drugs. She may think that’s lunacy because she’d never take more serious drugs, so she doesn’t see the same logical progression that you do.
So, how can you discuss this topic without feeling like you’re on totally opposite sides?
Start with what you both agree on.
“Granted, I don’t believe marijuana is a dangerous drug like opiods are a dangerous drug. And maybe if I saw studies that proved access to marijuana doesn’t also correlate with higher incidences of harder drug use, I’d be less worried. But once a system exists to sell legal marijuana, it’s only a matter of time before other narcotics lobby to be sold under that system. I think you and I would agree that this could create a potentially serious problem.”
Will you change her mind? Probably not. But:
- You’re establishing that you do have a common ground
- You’re qualifying your concerns
- You’re indicating what kinds of data might change your perspective
- You’re asking her to acknowledge and even potentially agree with your premise
Granted, in the end, she still may think you’re worrying about nothing… but once you have that shared ground, you’re each less likely to feel like you’ve been personally judged based on your difference of opinion.
Lastly, if your conversation reaches the stage where someone really is open to hearing new perspectives, keep this hierarchy of evidence in mind:
Lead with Stories, THEN Cite Data
Because we can easily choose to disbelieve facts or doubt the validity of data. This is especially true of surveys and studies that involve total strangers [“who all got paid either by George Soros or the Koch Brothers!!!” yells your totally woke cousin from the next room].
On the other hand, when we’re confronted by the story of someone we know, their personal experience can have a direct impact on our concepts of good and bad, right or wrong, and fair or unfair.
(This is one reason why it’s so important to empower people to tell their own stories.)
So, with regard to your next holiday conversation…
Do you think a new law would have a positive or negative impact on your community? Well, there may be plenty of facts and figures that support your claim… but the perspective of someone who literally will be affected by it will resonate even more deeply.
Do you believe women are being denied salaries that are equal to men’s? Sure, you can find plenty of studies that prove this… but a personal anecdote will pack a bigger punch.
Do you think global warming is real? Hey, you can cite data until you’re blue in the face and it won’t matter to someone who denies it… but maybe this video that shows the bleaching of the coral reefs will help you create a real conversation.
And in Conclusion…
Look, whether you love them or you avoid them, your family is yours for life.
And while some holiday conversations may be easier than others, you can’t evade all the awkward or difficult conversations at your next 50 holiday parties. Talk happens.
But no matter how frustrating or unpleasant it gets, you can still have a tough conversation without it turning into a trainwreck. Just remember the Awkward Conversation Survival Guide’s golden rule: phrase your responses as questions that invite clarity, not as accusations or demanding that a person defend their beliefs.
In a healthy conversation, you’re not attacking; you’re giving someone a chance to change your mind.
Or, maybe, to change their own.
Need Some Safe Conversation Starters?
If you want to keep your awkward holiday conversations safe and family-friendly, try discussing the pop culture touchstones that everyone has already experienced, like:
- Why Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead are really the same show,
- Why every Marvel movie feels so similar,
- Why Stranger Things 2 was so good, or
- Why we all suffer from imposter syndrome (and how to stop).