Teyhou Smyth Ph.D., LMFT

A “fun debate” can sometimes turn into a heated argument with family.

Key points

  • When approaching holiday gatherings with family, it can help to establish one’s own mindset and purpose ahead of time.
  • Humor is a great way to disarm someone who sees things differently, and can be used to navigate holiday conflict.
  • Some debates during the holidays may be worth revisiting later. If so, set a day and time to continue the discussion.

Gathering with family and friends during the holiday season is one of the most endearing aspects of this time of year. Eating together, exchanging gifts, and reminiscing create even stronger bonds with the people we love. In a recent post about holiday blues, I talked about techniques to avoid holiday misery which you may like to also read if you are feeling a bit down this holiday season.

Often during these gatherings, people vow to get together more often or stay in touch. But sometimes, even our most beloved folks can make comments or share viewpoints that differ so vastly from our own that we cringe and want to correct their flawed thinking.

Whether it is a political viewpoint, a religious belief, or another controversial perspective, it can be so tempting to try and educate your loved ones to see things your way. Rarely do these discussions end in the other person simply agreeing with the wisdom of your argument and conceding to your views.

In fact, that almost never happens. Instead, they will likely present their own points and tell you why your way of thinking is not quite right. This can become heated, particularly if both of you are passionate about your views. Sometimes it can create a fun debate with little harm done, but other times the argument can turn ugly.

Personal digs may be made in a moment of frustration or old conflicts might resurface. It only gets worse from there, with hurt feelings, mounting resentments, and a big awkward holiday for all.

Pre-Holiday Prep: Get Your Mindset Right

As you approach your holiday gatherings, it may help to establish your mindset and purpose ahead of time. For example, you already know that your uncle has vastly different political and religious views than you, or that your cousin is living a lifestyle you do not feel comfortable with. Think about the purpose of this gathering and whether you feel it is important to use this time with family and friends as a period of persuasion.

Ask yourself, is this the right time and place for an in-depth discussion or debate about world events? Is this a good setting for a political standoff? Do you really want to make this year the holiday that goes down in family history for the level of hostility or emotional turmoil?

Sometimes it may be worth it. If you feel you are being tormented or disrespected by someone at your holiday gatherings, it may be worthwhile to take a stand. Abusive or bullying behavior cannot be tolerated.

Maybe it would be best to skip a gathering if someone like this will be present or find a time to get together with other loved ones when this person is not around. Outside of that extreme example, most people are probably dealing with average levels of conflict during holiday gatherings; differing viewpoints can create friction, but you can decide in advance how to handle it if it arises.

Tips for Navigating Holiday Conflict

There are many ways to handle conflicts that arise during these gatherings. Once you have your mindset established, it will be easier to plan your response. Here are some ideas to consider:

  • Smile and ignore: The simplest response to holiday conflicts that arise is to not engage in them. The odds of you changing someone’s mind about long-held beliefs during a holiday party are slim to none.
  • Name it and move on: It may be worthwhile to make a diplomatic comment like, “let’s agree to disagree.” If they continue to work on engaging you in the disagreement, you can follow up with, “you can think your way, and I’ll think my way. I’m sure we agree on how great the pumpkin pie is though, right?”
  • Use humor: When you can laugh together, it mends a lot of fences. Humor is a great way to disarm someone who does not see things your way.
  • Offer a compliment: A genuine compliment can diffuse a lot of negative feelings. You can even pay a compliment to the thought they put into their arguments, even though you disagree with them. You can appreciate something about the person without agreeing with their main point.
  • Set a day and time to continue the discussion: Maybe both of you truly want to discuss this issue, debate your points, and have a healthy talk about your viewpoints. By all means, set a date and make it happen! Sometimes we are so conflict-avoidant in our culture that we miss out on great conversations with people who think differently than us. Maybe it’s best to have the discussion outside the holiday season though, to keep the mood festive and fun. Invite them over after the holidays to have coffee and lively conversation, it may end up being a good time.

During your get-togethers this holiday season, be patient with your loved ones and compassionate toward yourself. Decide in advance what your intent is for the gatherings and how you will respond if someone engages in conflict with you or makes a remark you disagree with.

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