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Having a plan in place to deal with tense topics can help you avoid conflict at your next holiday gathering. Getty Images
  • Current political tensions could make some conversations harder than usual at your next holiday gathering.
  • Feeling angry or anxious about a dialogue can affect you both mentally and physically.
  • Whether you’re a guest or hosting an event, having a plan in place can help you and others avoid potential friction and keep holiday spirits high.

While the idea of all things jolly during the holidays is comforting, the reality of getting together with friends and family can sometimes include figuring out how to navigate less-joyful topics of conversation.

With the current divisive political climate, this season may be particularly packed with tense talk at your next gathering — potentially putting a damper on your holiday celebration.

“The problem, especially when we talk about politics, is that people take it so personally. They make part of their identity the political ideology or the person. So if you so strongly identify with the president of the United States, and someone says something bad about him, then you feel like you’re being attacked personally,” Patrick Wanis, PhD, a human behavior expert, told Healthline.

“If you identify with a particular political ideology and someone attacks that, then you feel like you’re being attacked personally,” he added.

However, for some people, spirited talks are healthy if they involve a dialogue where both people are genuinely interested in understanding the other’s position rather than trying to get them to buy into theirs, said Karen Ruskin, PsyD, a relationship and human behavior expert in Gilbert, Arizona.

“If you’re trying to sell your perspective, then that creates disharmony and discomfort and friction and misunderstanding and not feeling like your voice is heard,” Dr. Ruskin told Healthline.

She explained that the political debate between family and friends is not just about politics.

“It becomes about feeling not understood and not heard and when we as humans don’t feel understood and heard, especially by the people we care about most… it hurts us. That’s why talking about something that can be such [a] difference of opinion can be harmful for the relationship,” Ruskin said.

However, the following tips may be able to help you navigate difficult conversations that crop up at your next holiday gathering:

Jacob Z. Goldsmith, PhD, licensed clinical psychologist at The Family Institute at Northwestern University in Chicago, Illinois, said that while it takes practice, setting boundaries is the best way to navigate difficult conversations.

“People think of boundaries as inherently problematic, as if the healthiest relationships would be ones with no boundaries. Healthy relationships definitely involve boundary setting. If someone is unwilling to respect your boundaries, it’s a really good sign that that’s not a healthy relationship,” Dr. Goldsmith told Healthline.

He advised people think of setting boundaries in terms of communicating with and managing people.

“Ideally, we want to communicate with people. We want to say, ‘I love you and we need to stop talking about this right now’ or ‘I’m happy to have a conversation about this, not at the dinner table in front of everyone else. Let’s have a cup of coffee tomorrow and hash this out,'” Goldsmith said.

Telling those in the discussion that you’re overwhelmed and need to take a time out is another communication approach he recommended.

If communicating doesn’t work, going into management mode is needed, which involves leaving the table during a heated discussion or not attending a family gathering to avoid a person.

“I’ll acknowledge that in some families that’s necessary, if you have a really toxic family member. But the first choice is to openly communicate,” said Goldsmith.

Dr. Wanis said the biggest sign that boundaries have been crossed is when personal attacks are made.

“It’s fine if people debate passionately about something they believe in. The problem isn’t when it’s conflict, it’s the type of conflict and it’s when conflict becomes a personal attack,” he said.

Other signs that a conversation should end include:

  • body shaking
  • feeling anxious
  • feeling angry
  • feeling bitter
  • an inability to express yourself
  • loss of control
  • violent thoughts

If setting boundaries is difficult around a person who intentionally pushes your buttons, Wanis said recognizing the reason why the person aims to argue with you can be helpful.

He explained the following are usually the main reasons why:

  • It’s the only way they believe they can connect with you.
  • They like to have power over you.
  • They’re a bully.
  • Convincing you to agree with them validates their beliefs.

Once you understand their motivation, Wanis said it can be easier to not react to their provocations.

“It’s learning to detach yourself from an outcome. If you want this person to approve or validate [you] then they have control over you,” he said.

“You hear the words and you don’t react because you don’t have to prove anything,” he continued. “The moment you believe you have to prove something or that you have to convince someone of something is when you’re going to get yourself in trouble.”

Wanis pointed out that another strategy is to ask questions.

“Say, ‘Why do you like President Trump so much?’ or ‘Why do you not like President Trump so much?’ And if you are just willing to listen, not only will you learn something, but you might learn something about the person and might get a greater insight into their core values, and you might realize they are probably not that different than you,” he said.

If you need to change the subject, he advised saying something along the lines of, “If President Trump bothers you so much, don’t think about him.” And then ask the person to tell you about what they’re most passionate about in life to change the subject.

When you’re the host, so much goes into making sure your guests feel comfortable and welcome. If you anticipate heated discussions at your party, here are a few ways to set the tone:

Be direct on your invite

Include a simple statement on the invitation, such as, “To ensure a fun time is had by all, please respect that there will be no political discussions.”

If you want to allow the discussion, Wanis says to set the ground rules and tell your guests upfront, “‘I’m happy for you all to be at my table, and to discuss and debate, but the moment there is a personal attack on someone, I will ask you to leave,'” he said.

Make it clear at the door

“If it’s a dynamic going on within the family or with friends, then there is humor and seriousness to this. Put a sign on your front door that says, ‘Leave the attitude at home,'” Ruskin said.

Talk to the instigator

If you know there’s someone who tends to be really provocative, talk to them ahead of time or pull that person aside when they arrive and tell them to leave the politics, religion, and other hot topics aside.

“It’s harder when there is a power dynamic, so if you’re a young adult and hosting and it’s your parent or grandparent or aunt or uncle, you may not feel comfortable pulling that person aside and saying, ‘Hey, you tend to antagonize people when you talk about politics,’ so then you need to tell someone else to [speak with them]. If it’s a grandparent, ask a parent to talk to them,” Goldsmith said.

Plan activities

If you want to avoid sitting around and talking all night, Ruskin said it’s a good idea to plan activities or games throughout the night.

“Pace the games, too. Maybe plan a game before the meal to set the tone, and after the meal to [break up dinner conversations],” she said.

If you’re the one bringing up a difficult topic, be prepared

If there’s a topic you want to discuss with family and friends over the holidays, Goldsmith said to prepare your thoughts and know when it’s time to stop talking.

“Before the holidays, think about what your [goal is], because if you want to have a difficult conversation you can’t just jump into it particularly after everyone has had two or three drinks in the middle of Christmas dinner. It’s going to feel like a gotcha moment and the alcohol doesn’t help,” he said.

Goldsmith suggests asking yourself how you want to feel at the end of the talk. Avoid going into the talk with the goal of convincing people to think or believe a certain way.

“When you think about it that way, you are able to take radical responsibility for your own behavior and own experience. Doing that allows you to insert a pause where you’re not just impulsively or reactively jumping in, but rather moving in a mindful and committed way,” he said.

Once you share your thoughts, be prepared to listen and be empathic of what other people are saying — even if you don’t agree.

“The hallmark of really deep conversation is empathic listening, which doesn’t mean you have to agree, but that you have to step into the other person’s shoes long enough to understand how and why they feel what they feel,” Goldsmith said.

When we experience tension, we experience tension emotionally and physiologically because they’re connected, Ruskin explained.

“We don’t compartmentalize our emotions and our brains from our body,” she said.

For instance, if you’re feeling angry or anxious about a dialogue, your body goes into fight-or-flight mode.

“Your heart rate will go up and if your heart starts to pound, the brain thinks, ‘Alert. Something is wrong,’ because the brain doesn’t know the distinct difference between why the heart rate [is increasing], it just thinks there’s a problem, and now the brain isn’t as calm as it was because you’re not getting as much oxygen to the brain [when] you’re feeling tense,” Ruskin said.

Goldsmith agreed, noting that research shows being under enormous amounts of stress has both physical and mental side effects.

However, he said, there’s a balance because being able to express yourself with loved ones has mental health benefits, too.

“Many people don’t feel mentally healthy when they are holding inside a lot of things. It’s important for a lot of people to feel close to their family and the holidays are a time for a lot of people to get their one shot at getting a break being away from work and relaxing for a little while, so to have that taken away if there is tension can feel really lousy,” he said.

“In the short term, it’s more stressful to talk about this stuff, but in the long term it can feel way better to develop relationships in which you can actually talk about these things,” Goldsmith said.

Cathy Cassata is a freelance writer who specializes in stories around health, mental health, and human behavior. She has a knack for writing with emotion and connecting with readers in an insightful and engaging way. Read more of her work here.