We’ve all experienced some awkward holiday conversations. Whether you’re meeting online or in person this holiday season, you might be navigating some challenging relationships—like talking to the cousin you rarely see and don’t have much in common with, or the aunt who can’t stop pushing political views you don’t share. Sometimes it can be hard to keep things positive!

We at the Great Books Foundation have facilitated literally thousands of conversations among so many different people, young and old. We know there are simple things you can do to get things moving in a better direction. Here are five tips to try!

  1. Express appreciation for the occasion. If you can genuinely say that you’re happy for the holiday opportunity to see family members again, that can set a good baseline mood. Statements like “I can’t believe it’s been so long” or “It’s good to see so many of us together” can put the focus on gathering as something to celebrate, rather than to endure.
  2. Listen without interrupting. Rather than getting defensive or assuming you know where a statement is going, concentrate on honoring the speaker with your attention. Simply hearing someone out—assuming they are not saying something genuinely offensive—can have a powerful effect. Demonstrating respect in this way may help reset a relationship.
  3. Ask targeted follow-up questions. Pick up on any non-contentious topic mentioned and ask for more information. Questions like “You said you have new team members at work—how is that going for you?” or “What belt is your daughter up to now in karate?” can steer a conversation into positive territory.
  4. Take some thinking time. Especially if a pattern of conflict is already established in a relationship, it can be hard to avoid angrily and immediately responding to a provocative remark. Instead, take a few moments to weigh your reaction and decide how—or whether—you want to react. Even a brief pause can help cool not only your own emotions but also your conversational partner’s.
  5. Have some phrases ready if you need to walk away. Even with the best intentions, sometimes a conversation can’t be redirected or reset. When that’s the case, it helps to have some simple exit lines in mind. Statements like “I believe we’ll just need to agree to disagree” or “I’ll need to take some time to think about that” can enable you to disengage from an argument civilly.

2020 has been a difficult year . . . we hope you and yours enjoy the holiday season despite these unprecedented circumstances, and we wish you the very best as 2021 approaches! To learn how to use the Shared Inquiry method of learning in your educational setting, visit our professional development page and see what we have to offer. And remember, all of our training is available online!