This guest article is a gift from a friend of the AoC Checklist. Oren Jay Sofer teaches meditation and communication retreats and workshops nationally. He is a member of the Spirit Rock Teachers Council, a Certified Trainer of Nonviolent Communication, and the author of Say What You Mean: A Mindful Approach to Nonviolent Communication.
Spending time with family members over the holidays—the season of “good will to all”—often can be challenging.
Family gatherings may reveal a widening canyon of personal, political, and cultural differences; table conversations can halt in tense silence or devolve into explosive argument. Instead of gritting your teeth to get through the meal, here are six tips for more mindful conversations during the holiday season.
1. Set clear intentions.
Staying balanced during challenging moments depends on how well we’ve trained our minds ahead of time. One of the most powerful ingredients in a conversation is intention, the motivation in the heart that impels us to speak, act or pause. By keeping intentions like patience, kindness, or curiosity in mind, actions can be guided by values rather than immediate reactions.
This year, take some time reflect on your intentions before you gather with family members, friends, or co-workers. How do you want to show up? Feel the strength of your commitment to those values.
2. Prepare key phrases.
It’s easier to respond to a snarky comment or a loaded question if you come prepared with a few key phrases. What’s come up at past gatherings? With hindsight, how do you wish you would have responded? Write down a few phrases that you can use in case something similar happens. This could include changing the subject, setting limits, or anything else you might have difficulty finding words for in the moment.
Here are a few favorites:
“There’s a lot in what you just said. I need a moment to gather my thoughts.”
“I’m not sure. I’d prefer to talk about that some other time.”
“I’m not in the best frame of mind to talk about that right now. How about we…”
“Things feel really heated. Let’s take a break on this topic for a little while.”
“I’d love to focus on enjoying one another’s company tonight. Let’s talk about…”
3. Find your ground.
An effective way to stay calm in the face of family turmoil is getting grounded by feeling the weight of your body. The mind can go a thousand miles an hour, the heart may race with surges of emotion, but the body is always right here.
Feel your feet on the floor, the warmth in your hands, or the contact with the chair. If that doesn’t work, try carrying a small stone or other object in your pocket that you can discretely hold in your hand to help you stay centered.
4. Get curious and listen for needs.
Perhaps the most important thing we can do to ease tensions, build trust, and turn a conversation around is to get genuinely curious. Instead of focusing on the things you disagree with, try to get interested.
Humanistic psychology (and many other fields of social science) hold that at the core, all human beings share the same basic, fundamental needs. We all want to be happy, to be understood, to have meaning, and more (here’s one list of human needs).
Most conflict happens at the level of our strategies—our ideas about how to meet our needs. When we identify what really matters, our commonalities outweigh our differences and we find shared humanity.
So, when a conflict arises, try to get underneath the views and opinions. What’s important to this person? What are the core human needs that lie beneath the contentious opinions? Genuinely listening for another’s values can go a long way to bridging the gap.
5. Debate mindfully.
While you may want to do your best to keep the peace, it’s also important to know your own limits. Sometimes, speaking up is what’s needed.
It’s possible to speak out against dangerous rhetoric or harmful actions without degrading anyone. Instead of blaming the other person, diagnosing or labeling them, speak from your heart about how you feel and why.
“I feel so disturbed by what you’re saying. I want everyone to be treated with respect regardless of their (nationality, skin color, gender, sexual orientation, ability…).” By staying with your own feelings, you can minimize conflict when it arises.
6. Keep your aims modest.
There can be great value in debate and critical conversation, but the conditions of a holiday gathering often aren’t supportive for a meaningful exchange. Keep your aims modest. Trying to change the other person’s mind rarely supports dialogue. Instead, focus on how you’re having the conversation. Are you creating the conditions for mutual respect and understanding? Are you embodying your values regardless of the other person’s behavior?
You’re unlikely to solve the climate crisis over dinner, but you might deepen your relationship with your climate-denying uncle if you can find a way to really listen and share ideas. (And that creates the condition that, one day, might help your uncle open up as well.)
In the end, our ability to engage with care and respect is often more effective than finding the right words.
Wishing you happy holidays!