I've studied conflict resolution. Here's what it's taught me about surviving the holidays

Is every holiday family dinner a battle? This is how to approach a tense gathering

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published November 24, 2022 2:00PM (EST)

Family argument at the dinner table (Getty Images/Image Source)
Family argument at the dinner table (Getty Images/Image Source)

I wish I had known then what I know now about conflict resolution, that Thanksgiving of our epic battle over "Les Miserables."

You probably would prefer to have a peaceful holiday season this year. You are likely not the sort of person who enjoys storming off from the dinner table, or crying in your childhood bedroom, or sullenly texting a friend while you furtively drink in the bathroom. And you may be dreading this time of year, knowing that there's a very real possibility of any or all of those things happening, with people you may not even have seen in two or three years.

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The polarization in our country — and by extension, our families — is real, profound and possibly irreversible. A New York Times and Siena College poll last month found that "Nearly one in five voters — 19 percent — said that politics had hurt their friendships or family relationships." Yet as I learned the year my relations took heated sides over the artistic merits of a certain Broadway musical's revival, family is a minefield and people will fight about anything. 

Back then, I grudgingly kept my Sondheim-loving opinions to myself and just stalked off. Since then, I've completed my studies at my university's conflict resolution program, on the way to my doctoral dissertation work on crisis negotiation. Over the past two years, I've learned about international peace brokering, about labor disputes and noisy neighbors. And while I find it highly unlikely I'll get out of this time of year without at least one major blowup, I know I'll be able to manage any family fights — musical theater–related or otherwise — better. You can too.

Establish some ground rules

The first rule of family fight club is that you talk about family fight club. You will not jinx anything or create a self-fulfilling prophecy acknowledging that things might get heated. That is what is known as superstitious nonsense. If you're fought in the past, let's assume you will again. 

Disagreement can be healthy. Openness to different points of view can foster creativity. And siloing ourselves in our echo chambers distorts everybody's reality.

I used to believe the whole reason for the season was avoiding conflict — a skill my daughters will tell you I entirely lack. That I — an individual whose catchphrase is "What did you just say to me?" — now have accredited training in conflict resolution is hilarious to them. You want to go? Let's go. Let's just do it without burning everything to the ground. Disagreement can be healthy. Openness to different points of view can foster creativity. And siloing ourselves in our echo chambers distorts everybody's reality.

This doesn't mean your Viking-hat-donning cousin is right about Nancy Pelosi, or that it's your job to quietly endure any rhetoric contrary to your values. What it does mean is that this is a good time to ask yourself, what do you really want from your family gatherings this time around? Admit that this experience isn't just going to be dinner or tree-trimming; it's a dialogue. When I spoke earlier this year to Yale professor Zoe Chance about her book, "Influence Is Your Superpower," she mentioned "coming in prepared" as a key element of any successful negotiation. 

Unfortunately, in the anarchy of family dynamics, we rarely articulate the guidelines. So if you're anxious and concerned about the alchemy of the gathered personalities, put an early offer on the table for something different. "I think that trying to set some terms for communication is not a bad practice," says Jonathan Golden, Ph.D., program director of Drew University's Center on Religion, Culture & Conflict. "If there's a history of these types of caustic interactions at the table, then it's actually pretty wise for someone to just say, 'Okay, why don't we all try and do this a little differently this year? Why don't we see if we can have some ground rules for talking? We'll take turns, everyone will say what they have to say, we won't shout.' Really simple stuff. It doesn't have to be like you've put a paper in front of everybody and had them sign some compact. You can just make a very light statement about talking respectfully." 

And then stick to them

Regardless of whether anybody else actually accepts or abides by your proposed protocols, the very act of offering them is a gesture of peace. It also gives you your own code of behavior to stick to when things feel like they're going off the rails. I say this to you a self-identified loose cannon — it is actually very empowering to just make a deal with yourself about your limits. It holds you accountable to your own values, and sets an example to your kids if you have them, to promise no name-calling and then not do any name-calling. 

Remember that listening is powerful

Since studying conflict resolution, active empathy has become my biggest secret weapon. It starts by not tuning out the moment that person across the table starts mouthing off. It deepens every time you can say — calmly and without sarcasm or distortion — "So you're saying…" and then repeating back what that person has said. You can further ask here for clarification — "Where did you hear this? Am I understanding this correctly?" 

Stress makes everybody feels anxious and defensive and (surprise!) less receptive to other views. Going in with gritted teeth sets a shaky groundwork.

Checking in with the other person or parties about what they're saying or experiencing serves a variety of purposes. It shows that you're listening, which is a big deal. It nips misinterpretations and assumptions in the bud. It can even neutralize a statement just by letting the other person hear it repeated back to them. If nothing else, it can help you get a better understanding of where they're coming from, and avoid future land mines. 

And from there, you're likely going to be in a stronger place to ask, "Now can I say something?"  and make your own case.

Keep calm and take breaks

It's not a murder trial, it's just a family get-together. You don't have to come to a unanimous verdict on anything; you aren't literally trapped. But stress makes everybody feels anxious and defensive and (surprise!) less receptive to other views. Going in with gritted teeth sets a shaky groundwork. The more emotionally fortified you can be, the lower the odds of a stormy encounter for all parties. 

In a formal mediation, you can call for a caucus. At the holidays, if you need to request a time out, that's fair. If you want to go off to check in with a friend, have at it. Just don't use your break to doom scroll through Twitter or stew in your rage. It's about protecting your own mental and emotional resources, not gathering more ammunition for another round of battle. 

Know that the zero-sum game is an outdated and terrible concept

You are not going to win at Thanksgiving. You are not going to do a victory lap around your sister-in-law at an eggnog brunch. It's not going to happen. The likelihood of changing anybody's mind is pretty slim. So don't approach the holidays like that's somehow the point. The good news is that it means nobody's going to change your mind either, right? 

Modern resolution techniques focus on finding common ground and mutually beneficial outcomes. If you have agreed to show up and spend time with people who push your buttons (also known as your family), then the best you can do is get through it with your integrity intact. 

I have relationships I've walked away from because I wouldn't "agree to disagree" on issues that are fundamental to my ethics. And I still fight with my family, often about very stupid stuff. But among the people I care about, I would rather find a way to constructively work through our squabbles. I fell in love with the study of conflict resolution because when you can disagree with respect and empathy, you can actually get a lot done. It's worth it to try, and it's more fun than sitting in the driveway, freezing and mad.

This stuff is not easy. "I joke that it's a lot easier to do this in a professional setting and with strangers or work associates than it is with family," says Golden. "With those other people, it's easier to put on your most professional demeanor and have your frontal lobe working at all times. When it's with family, you usually let your guard down, your triggers are heightened. When you're sitting with them, it's just much harder to inhibit all those feelings and emotions."


By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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