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2020 is a year like no other. And as we head into the holiday season, we know that the election, Covid-19, lockdowns, and a host of other divisive issues might come up at the dinner table, virtual or otherwise. We’ve all experienced uncomfortable moments with extended family when the conversation turns to politics—suddenly things take a turn and a heated discussion occurs that wasn’t meant to be. That phenomenon will likely be more complicated this season with the added stress of the Coronavirus and how easily things can be misconstrued over Zoom calls.

The truth is, these conversations don’t have to be adversarial or uncomfortable. If you go about it with an empathetic mindset and the intention of listening and learning, you can lower the temperature of the conversation and get back to what you want to do over the holidays: enjoy your family. Here are strategies to help you connect over what unites us, rather than divides us, and they can be used in any situation.

1. Search for areas of common ground before jumping in

Start by asking your family questions. Reminisce about good times, talk about what you have in common that is non-controversial, and mention things that you like: sports, Netflix shows, hobbies, or even new recipes. Then, since we’re all in the same 2020 boat in terms of our new reality, ask your family members how their jobs and/or home-schooling have been going. How are their children managing online classes and friendships? Find out if they’ve adopted a new pet or discovered a new hobby.

Starting conversations here will remind everyone in the family why you all love spending time together and what you have in common. Do this before jumping into politics or other controversial issues like mask-wearing, and you’ll be surprised how much of a difference this effort can make. 

2. Listen if you want to be heard

When divisive topics come up, we instinctively want to tell others our feelings and why we are right. The reality is that this won’t work, and that’s why issues like politics can be so divisive at the dinner table over the holidays. Instead, start by listening. Your family members likely also have some profound anxiety and may say certain things just to be heard. It may sound painfully simple, but sometimes we need to “shut up and listen.”

Listen before being listened to. This is a hard skill to master, especially if you believe the other person is predisposed to disagree with you. It means that when you are chomping at the bit to make your point, you need to check yourself and zip those lips. Rather than making a mental list of counterpoints while they speak, you need to genuinely try to understand the other person’s perspective—what THEY care about, and why. This is not only important in making sure the other person feels heard, but it also provides you with a better idea of where to take the conversation next. Only then will the other person be willing to hear your side of the issue. If you want your idea to be heard, you first have to listen.

3. Lower the temperature through empathy

While listening, the most effective way to lower the volume and temperature of the conversation is to empathize. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes and understand their level of frustration. Acknowledge the other person with eye contact, nodding, and verbal and non-verbal affirmations. When someone is agitated, they want you to understand and identify with how they feel. When you empathize, you can begin to understand where they’re coming from and what personal experiences led them to these beliefs. Don’t try to listen only with the idea that you already have a counterpoint or solution. Instead, honor their experiences, be calm and compassionate, provide non-verbal affirmation, and truly hear them out. By doing this, you can get to the core of what their issue is and address that, instead of reciting the political talking points that both sides seem to be spewing over social media and the airwaves.

4. Disagree respectfully

It can be hard to keep your cool when the person you are talking to is someone whose beliefs and values may be the 180° opposite of your own.

If you find yourself in a heated argument, rationality often goes out the window and it’s easy to retreat to raw emotion. When this happens, people often stop listening and just focus on trying to win the argument by saying the most hurtful thing possible.

Sometimes, the easiest way to defuse the situation is to pay a compliment. Say something like, “I can see how dedicated and passionate you are on this issue, and I commend you.” Show the person you disagree with the same level of respect that you receive from people who share your own point of view. This approach will let you remain authentic to your beliefs and while still being respectful to the other person. Paying a compliment and then shifting the conversation ever so slightly toward the middle can lead to a significant breakthrough in communicating with people.

5. Return to positivity

When things get tough, go back to the beginning and return to talking about something positive. We’ve found that the simplest, quickest, and easiest thing to do to switch a conversation is to ask, “What is the first thing you are going to do or place you are going to travel once it feels safe to do so?” That question will bring warmth and happiness back to the conversation, and you can focus on what you hoped to do over the holidays: have a positive experience.

About the Author / Natalie Hoffman

Natalie Hoffman specializes in research and communication between differing cultures and points of view. She is a co-author of the bestselling book, "How to Talk to the "Other Side": Finding Common Ground in the Time of Coronavirus, Recession and Climate Change." She often takes on the role of “peacemaker” and her lifelong goal is to bring people together at a mass scale. She is passionate about sustainability and, as a mixed-race woman, embraces many of the perspectives outlined in this book. A songwriter and water polo player in her free time, Natalie is a Seattle native who loves a good bowl of ramen.

About the Author / Kevin Wilhelm

Kevin Wilhelm is the CEO of Sustainable Business Consulting, instructor at Harvard University, and author of the bestselling book, “How to Talk to the Other Side: Finding Common Ground in the Time of Coronavirus, Recession and Climate Change.” He is one of the world’s pre-eminent business consultants in the field of sustainability and his book details how to find win-win solutions with people who disagree politically and ideologically around issues like public health, the economy, and climate change. His firm, Sustainable Business Consulting, focuses on demonstrating the bottom-line business benefits of sustainability and has led efforts for over 180 organizations, including New York Life, Expedia, Nordstrom, Tommy Bahama, REI, the Cities of Seattle and Tacoma, the Pac 12 Conference, and Angie’s List. His organization, a four-time Best in the World Winner from B Corp, has helped companies offset 100,00 times the carbon emissions of his own firm in the past three years.

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