As families and friends gather to celebrate the holidays, discussions surrounding current events and politics can boil over, turning a joyous occasion into a sour situation.

Mary Lee Brock, assistant professor and assistant director of Creighton University’s Negotiation and Conflict Resolution (NCR) program, says the anticipation of divisive issues debated around the dinner table can be the most stressful.

“We can experience stress when anticipating family gatherings because we often know the political beliefs of our family members and suspect how they might behave,” Brock said. “Holiday dinners are often a time where new partners are introduced, or children are moving into an age of awareness.”

In advance of family gatherings, Brock recommends reflecting on goals and/or setting ground rules for conversation topics to keep the peace. In addition to a plan, Brock recommends the following:
Realize that disagreements about politics are emotional, not factual.  Focusing on what you see are the facts and trying to reason with someone could exacerbate the conversation.
Show understanding. Acknowledge strong feelings about a topic without agreeing with the statement.  Offering an acknowledgment can help build a bridge. For example, “Keeping our community safe is important to you.”
Stay curious. Rather than trying to change the subject or shut the speaker down, recognize it as a learning opportunity and ask open-ended questions. For example, “Can you help me understand your perspective?”
Be true to your own perspective. Brock says individuals can still be true to their beliefs and keep the peace at a family dinner. That means making the tough decision to let some comments slide.
“If you hear something that is extremely hurtful or offensive, respond from your own perspective, ‘It is very hard for me to hear you use the word ___________.’ Be prepared to be told to ‘get over it’ as these emotions and patterns run deep,” says Brock.
Take the long view. This holiday dinner is simply one chapter in a long trajectory of the family. Decide whether to maintain relationships with family members, even if that means with someone who holds such different views and values.  

Remember not everyone is interested in keeping the peace. Accept the reality that many people get enjoyment out of debate, evocative statements and “stirring the pot.” Some individuals feel the need to be right at all costs.

If discussions do get heated around divisive issues, Brock says it could provide a realistic view of family dynamics and serve as an opportunity for discussion afterward to debrief the important topics that came up during dinner.  
About Creighton University: Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, enrolls 4,255 undergraduates and 4,399 graduate and professional students among nine schools and colleges. No other university its size offers students such a comprehensive academic environment with personal attention from faculty-mentors. Jesuit and Catholic, it affords incomparable inter-professional education, bridging eight health professions programs with law, business and the arts and sciences – all on one walkable campus. Creighton University ranks in the top third of U.S. News & World Report’s rankings for National Universities.
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