How to prevent fights on holidays — without banning politics and other heated topics

This holiday season, don't ban certain topics. Institute rules of respect instead — if not for you, for the kids

Published November 23, 2019 1:00PM (EST)

Fighting at a dinner table (Getty Images)
Fighting at a dinner table (Getty Images)

The holidays are meant to be a time of joy, kindness, generosity and togetherness, but for too many of us the holidays are tinged with dread. We dread the inevitable arguments over money, politics, family history. We dread the squabbles over sharing space and attention. We dread the arguments about whose turn it is to do what, or whose responsibility it was to take care of whom.  “I don’t want to go to Thanksgiving this year,” my daughter told me recently, because all the adults do is fight.

Our children are sitting at the small folding table next to the adult table and they are watching us. They do not understand why their beloved cousin seems to be mad at mommy or why Grandpa just said someone has a 4th grader’s understanding of economics. We are their models. They can do better if we do better. We love each other, we want the time we spend together to be warm, but we are not communicating with each other in the way that would allow the special moments to unfold. We need strategies for facing the holidays — and our loved ones — with compassion, kindness and perspective.

These days our families are experiencing strain like never before. I am a social skills coach, and I have taught thousands of people of all ages what it takes to cultivate good relationships and communicate. In my experience, the most important skill for getting along in any community is kindness, and it’s time that we go back to the basics  and reframe the way we approach the people in our lives — especially our loved ones.

When the political climate gets too hot, a lot of families set out guidelines about what can and can’t be discussed at the table, in front of the kids, or in the house at all. But is avoidance really a solution? Can we trust each other enough to have a conversation without it devolving into a yelling match or wounded feelings?

So, this holiday season, instead of banning certain topics, institute rules of respect instead. In my practice, one of the things I do is teach kids how to listen to one another, to show respect to their peers, and to practice the skills of empathy in order to form a connect. Now more than ever, we need to be reminded of those skills, and practice them with gusto. Instead of instituting rules to ban topics perhaps institute rules of listening like don’t interrupt, no hand signals to ask someone to stop or hurry up, don’t blurt out insults and allow someone to finish his point before speaking.

From my perspective as a life and social skills coach and trainer, we are suffering from a loss of kindness. one of the most important fundamentals of the social skills we all need to get along in society.

One of the skills I teach is self-regulation. Self-regulation is the idea of managing your body, mind and emotions in pursuit of a goal. The skill allows you to resist impulses, control what you say and your actions, to calm yourself when you are upset, to hold back a comment, or resist using your fists rather than your words. It is the ability to remember your intention to be kind, and then to manage what you say and do, so you follow through on that intention. It is an essential skill in all aspects of life and people with the ability to self-regulate are more able to strive for a goal and attain it.


1. Make a list and check it twice

Make a list of the things your relatives, especially those on the other side of the aisle, have done for you and what they mean to you.  During your holiday conversations, validate the feelings and emotions of both those you agree with and those you do not.  You can say, Interesting, I hear you, That must feel hard for you.  Assume and remember the best intentions of those around you. As you express your opinions,  remember to focus on the kindness, compassion and respect your relative has shown you for years, her acts of love and affection.  John Gottman’s work shows that it takes five positive interactions to overcome one negative interaction, and therefore it's crucial to remember that what you say can damage your relationship.

2. Walk in someone else’s shoes

Step into your relative’s shoes and try to understand her point of view.  Consider,  What could be going on in the other person’s life? What is the other person’s situation? What do I know about her motivation, values and intentions? Don’t make assumptions about their motivations and perspective; instead listen and reflect, reserve judgement and try to hear their point of view. You might even come to find insight you did not anticipate.

3.Watch your tone and dismissive comments

Emotions often bubble up into our tone and our comments.  Name calling and zingers will not build a bridge to understanding. If your intention is to speak to your family with respect, take steps like breathing deeply and pausing before responding to ensure your tone remains neutral. Avoid using words like “always” and “never” and avoid bold statements to make a point.  Make a plan in advance to respond to someone who does not follow this advice and may become aggressive to you. For instance, try saying, “I really hope we can keep this conversation respectful” or “I am hearing you become frustrated, let's continue to try to understand each other.”

4. Listen

Real active listening means you are interested and you are hearing the other person’s point of view without judgement. As you speak with your family, make eye contact and check your body language and facial expressions.  Try to avoid interrupting or simply be listening for your chance to jump in to speak your opinion.  A good exercise in advance of the holiday is to consider what speaking compassionately looks like: It means showing interest in the other person’s feelings and opinions, being curious and listening to the person so you can relieve their suffering and be a shoulder to lean on. A way to neutralize the conversation is to use reflective listening, which simply involves recapping what the person said and making empathetic comments like that must be hard, or I hear you or I am hearing that this was so painful for you.

5. Manage emotions rather than letting them manage you

When you feel upset you are flooded with emotions that often hijack your brain and affect your behavior.  Be aware when you start to experience emotional flooding your body. Pay attention to your body signals. Ask yourself what you typically feel in your body, stomach, face when are your emotions rising. What do you feel like when you are angry but in control? Anxious? And what do you feel like when you are losing control? Do you get flushed, feel a stomachache, maybe tingle in your arms and legs? By breathing in and out, pausing before speaking, chewing slowly and mindfully, placing your feet on the ground and noticing how your legs feels and grounding yourself, you can help to use mindfulness to manage your emotions.

6. Don’t try to change anyone’s mind

Holidays are not for influencing or changing someone’s mind, and the conversation is not meant to be a showstopper full of uncomfortable topics. There is no need to cajole, shame, scold, coerce or try to change the mind of your family members. Instead, take the time together to ask questions to better understand their side of things; you can decide how you feel about it once the visit is over and you have some physical and emotional distance.

7. Return to common ground

There are often areas where you agree or where you have a mutual fondness, even if you have to reach as far back as a shared favorite movie or family memory. Reconnect with that touchstone when you need to. That can only come with listening, really hearing the perspective of another person, and trying to support another.

By Caroline Maguire

Caroline Maguire, ACCG, PCC, M.Ed. is a personal coach who works with children with ADHD and the families who support them. Her forthcoming book, "WHY WILL NO ONE PLAY WITH ME?: The Play Better Plan to Help Children of All Ages Make Friends and Thrive" is on-sale September 24 from Grand Central Publishing. Caroline earned her ACCG from the ADD Coach Academy and her PCC from the International Coach Federation (ICF). She also received a Master of Education from Lesley University. Her revolutionary coaching program and methodology helps teach executive function skills to children, teenagers, and young adults. She is a former coach for the Hallowell Center in Sudbury, MA. While with the Hallowell Center, Caroline was the main coach for children and teenagers. Caroline consults with schools and families internationally and has been co-leading social skills groups for over a decade.

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