How to handle conflict at holiday gatherings

If you're dreading the thought of navigating a minefield of family drama this holiday season, you're not alone. But there are some things you can do to keep the peace. (Credit: Getty Images)

Family gatherings during the holidays can be breeding grounds for conflict and sensitive conversations.

From politics and religion to personal choices and long-held grudges, the holidays have a way of bringing out the best and worst in all families.

If you’re dreading the thought of navigating a minefield of drama during family holiday gatherings this season, you’re not alone. According to the American Psychiatric Association, more than a third of Americans are concerned about “challenging family dynamics” this holiday season.

Afton Kapuscinski is an associate professor of psychology and director of the Psychological Services Center at Syracuse University. Her research relates to the treatment and prevention of mental health issues in adults.

She has talked extensively about navigating family conflict and mental health during the height of the pandemic.

Here, she answers three questions about how to approach sensitive topics with family members:


You’re sitting at the holiday dinner table and a sensitive topic comes up. What is your advice on best ways to approach this type of conversation?


Planning ahead before we get caught in the “heat of the moment” about if and how to engage in conversations on sensitive topics provides an opportunity to clearly identify goals for the interaction with less emotional burden to cloud our thinking.

Consider asking yourself, “what am I hoping to accomplish through this conversation?” and “what choices on my part will make that outcome more likely?”

Whether your goal is to change another person’s mind, have your perspective heard, or learn more about a differing viewpoint, we often act in ways that are counterproductive to all of those aims when we feel angry or threatened.

We may go into offensive mode by raising voices, interrupting, making accusations based on assumptions, and formulating counterpoints instead of listening.

Demonstrating empathy, approaching the other person’s views with curiosity and speaking in a non-threatening tone increase the likelihood of a productive conversation.


How can you find common ground on highly divisive topics?


If you are specifically wanting to find common ground through dialogue, it is important to remember that people have a tendency toward confirmation bias in polarized conversations wherein we selectively search for information that supports what we already believe.

A more “scientific” approach may be helpful in reaching common ground, which involves using methods that open yourself to the possibility of disconfirming your own beliefs. Humanizing the other person is helpful in reducing bias, and this may be accomplished by asking them to share what about their own experiences and identity led them to a given position, as well as asking genuine questions to clarify aspects of their viewpoint that you do not understand.

Openly acknowledging what you are learning from the other party may offer the added bonus of making them more open to your viewpoints as well.


Is it ever a good idea to make a topic completely off limits?


The capacity for dialogue about controversial topics is generally viewed as a sign of health for a person as well as a group or system because it involves a capacity for self-control, trust, and perspective-taking. At the same time, from a mental health standpoint, the level of anxiety, anger, and relational discord discussions these conversation may cause is too emotionally costly for some people.

In my clinical experience, I have seen a few instances in which these conversations have actually derailed substantial progress in psychotherapy because the situation became explosive and had long-term, reverberating effects. Each person should use their own values and priorities as guides to determine when to enter into dialogue on sensitive topics and with whom.