How to Talk to Your Family When You Disagree

Healthy Living

November 25, 2020

The holiday season should be a time of joy and cheer. But for some, it’s often a time of family drama and conflict instead. If your get-togethers tend to turn into battles, then it’s time to rethink your approach to family communication. 

While Thanksgiving dinners still might not end with everyone on the same page, you may at least manage to leave the meal with a better understanding of the people you love.

How do you talk to family and friends when you don’t see eye to eye? Here’s a good place to start.

Decide whether it’s worth it.

The first principle of surviving family dinners is to remember that drama doesn’t have to be the norm. Sometimes, it’s simply better to steer clear of controversial topics than to end up in a fight.

That might mean keeping your distance from family members who rub you the wrong way, especially if they’re people who don’t play a major role in your life. 

Is it worth trying to explain your point of view to your second cousin’s spouse whom you only see once a year? You may just want to sit on the opposite side of the room instead.

Of course, there are other relationships that you may care more about preserving. With parents, siblings and other close relations, there probably comes a time when hard conversations need to be had. 

That’s because “keeping the peace” isn’t necessarily peaceful. 

Long-term bottling of your emotions can increase your risk of dying prematurely from cancer or other causes. In one 2013 study, people who regularly repressed their feelings were 70% more likely to be diagnosed with cancer than the other study participants.

In other words, choosing not to engage doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t stand up for what’s important to you. It simply means that Christmas dinner might not be the best setting for that conversation.

You have the right to set boundaries about what you’ll discuss at a holiday gathering — or anytime, for that matter. If someone tries to broach a topic that’s going to lead to drama, it’s okay to say no. Walk away if you have to.

Think positive whenever possible.

If you decide that you’re up for the challenge of a lively debate at a holiday event, it’s important to go about it the right way. It’s possible for family members to share differences of opinion without it ruining the meal.

For starters, while you can’t control others’ attitudes, you can control your own. 

Resolve to start with the belief that the other person isn’t out to get you. You’re simply two different people with two different perspectives on life.

Evaluate why the other person feels so strongly about this topic. From there, try to find some good in those motives, even if you strongly oppose the person’s conclusions. 

At the very least, do your best to start on neutral ground. That means not presupposing that your conversation partner’s deepest motives are bad or hateful.

By the way, this same technique can be helpful for family members who regularly grate your nerves, even when discussing mundane topics. Although they may never become your favorite people, trying to identify their good characteristics can make the day more tolerable.

Choose the right words.

Next, remember that people will hear your message more clearly if you speak the right way.

Sometimes that means that you’ll need to talk less and listen more. Ask plenty of questions of the other person. Questions lead to a greater understanding of another point of view. They also show that you’re open to dialogue rather than dead-set on winning the conversational battle.

Of course, you should be given plenty of opportunities to share your point of view, too. Just be sure to pause or ask questions frequently throughout the discussion.

As you go, look for common ground. 

Acknowledge ways that your goals are similar, even if your suggestions for achieving them are vastly different. That will help you both feel more connected despite your disagreements.

Sharing personal stories may be one of the best ways to help someone see your side of things. 

Relying solely on statistics and general statements can make an issue feel abstract or far away. Anecdotes, by contrast, may help the other person pair a face with your claims about the harms of a particular policy or the benefits of a new initiative.

Don’t make “winning” your goal.

One conversation is rarely enough to change anyone’s deeply held beliefs. In fact, if you walk away from a passionate debate with a triumphant sense of having crushed the other person, that’s probably a sign that you prioritized rightness over relationship.

Yes, you feel strongly about your beliefs and values. You want the people you love to see the world the same way you do. But that doesn’t mean that one of you has to be the victor while the other is gobsmacked by defeat.

When triumph is your only goal, alienating your loved ones is often the result. And in the end, you may be the one who pays the price. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, loneliness often contributes to health conditions like depression, heart disease, stroke and dementia.

Instead of focusing on gaining the victory, shift your mindset toward seeking greater understanding. Your conversation should be a bridge that helps span the divide between people who see the world in very different ways.

Know when to walk away.

No matter how hard you work to engage in healthy dialogue, some people can make it awfully hard, if not downright impossible, to do that.

Over time, harsh conflict can take a toll on your health. 

A 2018 study suggested that people with conflict-heavy marriages are more likely to experience leaky-gut syndrome, which can increase overall inflammation levels. Continual bitter disagreements with family members may have a similar effect. If you need an excuse to avoid certain topics — or certain people — you can say it’s for your health.

Setting boundaries may be enough to do the trick. 

You have the right to step away from conversations about controversial topics.

Also, just because you’re willing to discourse with an open-minded family member, that doesn’t mean you’re required to argue with bullheaded opponents, too. You can say no to people who begin discussions with verbal attacks, put-downs or an overall attitude of hostility.

If some family members refuse to respect your boundaries, you may need to take some big steps. Perhaps that means moving to the other side of the room. 

Or perhaps it means packing up your family and heading home.

Furthermore, if toxic family members have repeatedly made it clear that your views don’t measure up, consider turning down the dinner invitation this year. You can trade a holiday filled with insults and arguments for a quiet celebration with friends or close family members whose presence renews your spirit.

This Thanksgiving, you may not win every family member over to your point of view. The best you can do is to love your family members deeply, engage in productive dialogue as much as possible and take care of your own peace of mind.