“Today’s Politics Divide Parties, and Friends and Families, Too,” ran a headline in The New York Times shortly before the 2022 midterm elections. The article addresses how polarization in public life has a corollary in our personal lives. Now, going into a season of family gatherings, you might be faced with related arguments, chilliness, or tension. Conflict mediators at CBI have some advice for getting through what could be a stressful time.



A critical first step in approaching challenging interactions is simply to listen—really listen—in order to understand another point of view, without giving in immediately to an impulse to disagree or debate. This generates multiple benefits, steering you away from a reflexively defensive reaction, earning the trust and appreciation of someone with whom you disagree, and modelling a tone of curiosity rather than animosity.



Harvard’s Julia Minson has described a helpful acronym to keep in mind when conflict arises in precisely these holiday situations: “HEAR.” That stands for: “hedging your claims”; “emphasizing agreement”; “acknowledging other perspectives”; and “reframing to the positive.” When you hedge—Minson mentions using phrases such as “occasionally this happens” and “in some situations”—your role in a conversation can become more open, less combative. Emphasizing agreement allows conversational dynamics to shift toward understanding, as does acknowledging the perspective of another respectfully. Reframing the conversation positively, at last, helps an interaction move beyond the stalemate prompted by hostile moods.


Divert, Laugh, Disengage

When the topic just gets too intense, it might be time to shift the dynamic. This can be done using classic social maneuvers: diverting attention to lighter topics, laughing things off, or just not engaging when someone is out to offend and increase conflict. In an emotional moment, disengagement might feel like caving in, but consider the circumstances. A holiday gathering is probably not the place to fix, vent, complain, or address difficult conversations. There’s another lesson here, too: reflecting on the circumstances of a conflict can often guide decisions on how best to deal with it.


Take a Break

And, if things get really heated, there’s always this traditional evasion: “I have to go to the restroom.” It’s not only a place to get away, but a place to calm down and take deep breaths. If you find you can’t cool down, splash your face with cold water for 30 seconds. It works!