10 Tips to reduce tension at holiday gatherings

Sponsored: University of Utah experts offer advice on how to encourage more harmonious seasonal celebrations.

(iStock | University of Utah, sponsored) Family toasting at a holiday gathering!

The holidays aren’t always all holly jolly and peace on earth. Family gatherings can also be breeding grounds for all kinds of disagreements. But there are ways to help set yourself up for success when conflict arises over the mashed potatoes and gravy, said Kilo Zamora, an instructor in the School for Cultural & Social Transformation at the University of Utah.

“I like to flip the script and focus on cultivating a sense of belonging,” said Zamora. “There is almost always some common ground to be found.”

And while it can be difficult to balance passion and maintaining a respectful conversation, that focus on belonging and a genuine sense of curiosity about other people’s perspectives can make the experience less aggravating, added Samantha Moore-Berg, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Utah.

Conflict resolution, at its core, is a pathway to maintaining and nurturing healthy relationships amid disagreements. It’s a skill, often requiring a delicate balance of assertiveness and empathy, ensuring that all parties involved feel heard, respected and valued, noted Jason Perry, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah.

Moore-Berg, Zamora and Perry offer these tips to help make your family gatherings as joyous as they are memorable this holiday season.

1. Recall past history and build a foundation.

Remember when Grandma accidentally started a small fire in the kitchen? Or that time you stayed up all night trying to catch Santa with your older sister? Shared histories can be an excellent way to tap into common values and rekindle bonds.

2. Find a common denominator.

Think about why you want to take part in family gatherings, Zamora urged. Maybe a driving factor is wanting children to have a relationship with their cousins. Or perhaps it’s the shared love for an elderly family member. When conflict arises, it can be helpful to have a common denominator in mind and steer the conversation in that direction. “You might never agree on politics with loved ones, but you will likely agree that you want your kids to have loving and warm memories of the holidays,” noted Zamora.

3. Approach with curiosity.

It’s easy to think we know our family members and everything they believe, said Moore-Berg. “Given the chance, you may be surprised how much we don’t know about one another, even those who raised us or who we grew up with,” she noted. Keeping an open mind and entering conversations with the goal not to change minds but to better understand perspectives can help promote belonging, added Zamora.

4. Establish boundaries and consider consent.

The holiday table isn’t always ideal for intense talks. Consider asking, “Are you okay to discuss this now?” suggested Zamora. And if you are aware the conversation may take a turn, consider asking a neutral third party to act as a moderator, added Moore-Berg.

5. Celebrate small wins.

If there are large issues you feel you need to address, don’t try to bite off more than you can chew. “You’re probably not going to change someone overnight,” said Zamora. “Rather, think about small wins and rejoice when you achieve even moderate progress.” For example, hearing loved ones use respectful language or disengage from stereotyping others can be signs of an improving dynamic.

6. Give and seek grace.

No one is perfect. You’re going to say things you regret and so will others. Give yourself grace and try to do better next time. And while there are certain elements that should take special consideration—such as violence or threats—try to give grace to those around you when offended.

7. Stay focused.

If you are entering a difficult conversation, try to keep to one issue at a time. “Laundry list arguing never bodes well,” advised Zamora. “Stay focused on the main message you want to convey.”

8. Avoid judgement.

State the facts as you see them versus judgement. Instead of saying, “You’re mean and terrible,” be specific about what’s bothering you. For example, “You don’t treat my partner well.” Judgement makes us feel shame and stops us from learning, said Zamora. By approaching conversations with an empathetic mindset, we open the door to deeper understanding and connection, said Perry. “Judging others closes the door to genuine dialogue. When we set aside preconceived notions and truly listen, we not only enrich our own perspectives, but also foster an environment where everyone feels heard and valued,” he added.

9. Avoid generalizations.

Instead of saying things like, “You never do this” or “You always say this,” be specific. Try approaches like, “I’ve heard you say this on three occasions.” Absolutes don’t provide room to grow, said Zamora.

10. Sidestep contempt and foster respect.

Listening to other people’s perspectives and opinions doesn’t mean you are sacrificing your principles, said Perry. “In today’s polarized climate, it’s easy to fall into the trap of viewing disagreements as personal affronts,” he added. “You can disagree without being disagreeable.”