Published December 15, 2020
Holiday dinner conversations sometimes erupt in heated discussions when friends and relatives with opposing political views get together. This year, whether or not to even host the dinner may be a volatile topic all by itself.
There is a way to sensitively navigate these conversations about whether and how to celebrate holiday rituals during the COVID-19 pandemic, says Sourav Sengupta, MD, assistant professor of psychiatry and pediatrics.
When broaching the subject, begin with a caring statement, he says. “Start with something like ‘You know I love you…’ or ‘You know how important you are to me and how much I enjoy spending time with you ... ’”
Sengupta adds that it’s important to use “I” statements to establish how you are feeling. He says sentences like “I'm feeling really stressed about ... ” or “I've been worrying about spending time in-person ... ” are honest, neutral statements.
“It’s important to minimize judgmental language and to try hard to stick with facts rather than opinion,” he says. “Saying things like, ‘I'm seeing the case numbers in our community continuing to rise’ or ‘School just transitioned fully to remote instruction’ can keep the focus on the facts of what’s happening in the community.”
Once the conversation turns to personal feelings, Sengupta suggests asking questions to fully understand the other person’s perspective.
“Ask how they are understanding the situation. Statements like ‘It seems like we might be seeing things differently, how are you putting all this together?’ can help you find out where they are coming from,” he says.
“Try to restate their position without adding your own opinion or judgment to ensure they know you’ve heard and understood them,” Sengupta adds. “And check to see if they understood your perspective.”
He notes that a good strategy to work toward is to agree on goals and commit to compromise if and when possible.
Sengupta says that might involve saying something like “it sounds like we both want to be able to stay connected, but feel differently about how best to stay safe. What if we could figure out another way to … ?”
“Close with intimacy,” he adds. “Acknowledge this is a difficult time. If you weren’t able to reach compromise, let them know you can’t wait to reconnect when the public health situation improves. Let them know again that you care and you appreciate them.”
For more in-depth information about communicating about difficult issues, he suggests the book “Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High” by Kerry Patterson et al.
“Conflict is often anticipated,” Sengupta concludes, “but we can often diffuse things by demonstrating genuine interest in what our friends and loved ones are actually thinking and feeling.”