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Reaching Across the Aisle: Managing Hot Topics at Holiday Gatherings

After experiencing one of the most polarizing election campaigns in recent history, it is natural to feel ambivalent or anxious about upcoming holiday gatherings that usually include people with a combination of opposing opinions and values. Without careful consideration and structure, what is supposed to be a joyous reunion of loved ones can turn into a contentious and argumentative event.

You do not want to worry about if a holiday occasion will turn into a family war, and you do not need to. Whether you are hosting an event or simply attending one, there are guidelines you can follow to minimize stress and even ensure a happy holiday. Consider the following do’s and don’ts:

DO establish a firm boundary around conversation.

You have the right to consent to participate or not in conversation around hot topics. If you are hosting, make a rule that there will be no discussion of politics at Thanksgiving dinner. If people have a problem with this, they can take it outside or simply not come (although it is very unlikely for someone to bypass a fantastic meal in good company simply because a discussion of politics is off limits).

If you are okay with there being some discussion of the elephant in the room but do not want it to get out of hand, establish a rule that politics can be discussed for 30 minutes, but beyond that it needs to cease or those involved will have to go without a slice of your famous pie. In the case that you are not the host or do not have the power to dictate the rules of conversation, prepare a concise statement that you can say when you feel uncomfortable about something that is said and know that you can always walk away from a conversation you do not want to participate in. Let your loved ones know that you are uncomfortable and why you are choosing to walk away so that they can hopefully respect your boundaries.

DON’T fall victim to incendiary comments.

No matter how firmly you choose to set your conversation boundaries, you are not in control of everyone. This means that an attendee may cross that boundary and begin talking about polarizing topics. You cannot control other people, but you can control yourself. Give yourself permission to be upset by what someone says and choose a reaction that does not pour more fuel on the fire. It is okay to tell that person that his or her comments are inappropriate or make you feel upset. Ask him or her to change the topic or introduce one of your own. You can choose to talk more at length about what that person is saying at another time, and if you want to value a politics-free holiday, you need to do what is in your power to keep the peace at this event.

DO enlist a partner in crime.

You do not want a family war to start at your holiday event, and odds are you are not alone in this desire. Enlist a trusted family member or your intimate partner to help you in protecting your boundaries and goals for having a good enough time. The more people you can get on board with your plan, the safer you will feel going into the event. It is comforting to know that someone will back you up when you try to steer conversation in a less polarizing direction and that there is someone who will support you when you say you feel uncomfortable by what another person is saying.

DON’T hold a passive grudge.

At the end of the day, you can only do so much to structure your holiday to reduce the likelihood of incendiary conversation. Should someone disregard your rules of conversation or comments of discomfort, try not to hold in your resentment long-term. You may choose to bite your tongue for the evening and retreat to a different room and conversation, but try to address your concern at a later time when you feel calm and confident in what you want to say.

Perhaps you want to follow up with this person about how he or she hurt your feelings or you want to share why you feel differently about a hot topic than he or she does. Maybe you want to ask for an apology or explain why he or she will not be invited to the next event without a guarantee that your boundaries of conversation will be respected. By choosing to acknowledge a grievance, you are taking action to eradicate resentment and addressing a source of anxiety that could fester until the next family gathering.

It is normal for the holidays to inspire stress, from frantically cleaning and cooking in preparation to growing concern about how you can keep the piece with a variety of different opinions circulating in the same room. Remember that you have some significant control over how you choose to structure and respond to conversation. Take time to prepare for expected obstacles to a peaceful gathering, and discuss your concerns with your therapist. Call Symmetry Counseling today to be matched with a therapist who can help you establish rules for success this season.

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