As the holiday season approaches, and plans are made to visit extended family, you may be imagining — and dreading — some of those tough dinner-table discussions that inevitably happen. These days, our country is more divided than ever, and almost all of us have a family member (or 5!) who holds very different beliefs than we do.
There is always someone who is going to disagree with us on politics or religion — someone who has radically different ethical standards, or who has many opinionated and unwelcome beliefs about how we spend our money, the life choices that we make, or how we parent our kids.
Some of those people may be close relatives whose relationships are important to us, which makes these potentially impassioned discussions all the more weighty.
We have all been there, but it’s easy for these conversations to go downhill fast. Some of us have even temporarily or permanently severed ties with family members over these contentious issues.
Tips to Dealing With Loved Ones You Disagree With
While these conversations can feel quite personal at times, it’s important to try to distinguish between personal attacks and staunch disagreements about particular issues. Although it can feel downright impossible to wade through these uncomfortable moments and not completely lose our cool, it is possible to engage in difficult discussions about our beliefs and maintain healthy relationships with loved ones. Here are some tips that might just help you have more productive discussions and enjoy your quality time together.
1. Make an effort to listen
It may feel impossible when you are feeling triggered and angry, but allowing the other person to speak and making an effort to listen intently, will allow these conversations to go much smoother and move forward with more feelings of mutual respect.
2. Have the difficult conversations in person
These days, many of our interactions happen via text, email, or through social media. This isn’t usually the best way to engage in difficult conversations. Our body language, facial expressions, and our ability to feel empathy get easily lost with electronic communication. It’s best to save these conversations for in-person moments, or via the phone, when possible.
3. Have a sense of humor about it all
Laughter is truly the best medicine. If you can find ways to lighten the mood during difficult discussions, it can really help! And it’s a reminder not to take these hard issues so seriously — after all, many discussions are about theories and opinions, not about the core values of your relationship with the person.
4. Be honest about your feelings
Heated discussions about politics or beliefs can elicit very intense feelings. If you can, take a moment to identify what you are feeling while you engage in these discussions. Do you feel angry, scared, shocked, or depressed by what you are hearing? Are you personally offended? Do you feel unheard or disrespected? It’s possible that taking a breather and mindfully identifying your feelings will help. In some cases, calmly sharing how this person’s beliefs are making you feel is a good way to steer the conversation in a healthier direction.
5. Agree to disagree
Often passionate discussion about beliefs can seem to go around in a loop, with both parties repeatedly re-stating their opinions, and neither person learning anything or convincing the other of anything. At this point — especially if you are feeling frustrated or upset — it’s probably best to table the discussion for another time or scrap it altogether.
6. Keep certain topics on lockdown
As much as we all want to get along and not restrict or censor others’ opinions and beliefs, it’s perfectly fine to have boundaries with our loved ones about what can and cannot be discussed. If there’s a topic that you know will hurt or offend you no matter what steps you take to communicate about it effectively, it is fine to put a moratorium on that topic. Your feelings matter and you don’t have to engage in conversations that trigger you.
7. Separate your relationship from the disagreement
It’s easy to come away from certain conversations feeling so angry and disturbed by the other person’s beliefs and opinions that we begin to feel unhappy and infuriated with the person themselves. In some instances, it’s virtually impossible not to! At the same time, it’s important to try to separate the person from their beliefs. Take a moment to ask yourself: Outside of this conversation, does this person have the capacity to be kind and treat me respectfully? If so, you may be able to take a step back and take your anger down a few notches.
You Might Not Always Completely Reconcile
All of these are tips for how to keep your relationship intact with your loved ones despite what contentious topics may come up. However, there are certainly instances where a family member’s belief system is so hurtful to you in a direct way — for example, if your family member is hateful toward your sexual orientation, your race, or the sexual orientation or race of a loved one — that it may feel impossible to reconcile.
Some discussions may turn so ugly and reveal a side of your family member that you find difficult to ignore. And some exchanges may cause you to realize that your relationship with this person was always strained and that a foundation of mutual respect is just not possible.
If the relationship is beyond repair
In these instances, it’s okay to layout strong boundaries with your family member, about what you will discuss and how you will interact. You may even need to temporarily or permanently sever ties with them, and that’s okay too, especially if your mental health is suffering as a result of their behavior.
In most cases, though, practicing good communication skills and making an effort to foster respect and honesty is all it takes to survive these troubling moments at the holiday table. The good news is that after a day or two, you can pack up, go home, and go back to loving and interacting with these family members from afar.