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Fourteen Skills to Survive Holiday Season’s Social and Political Interactions

It is natural for people with common interests/values to associate and congregate together. In today’s society it is easy for many people to avoid others with differing opinions to interact and only briefly engage with them through social media. Each year in late fall and early winter those paradigms may clash while attending social or family gatherings. Perhaps too often discussions become heated which may damage relationships for months or years.

However, there are ways to avoid and limit the opportunities for charged emotional explosions. Some people come by the talent naturally, but for many this requires learned skills developed through directed effort and practice. Learning to use some or all of the skills may make holiday events more pleasant. They may also extend beyond the holidays and assist by supporting civility in daily life.

I have used a version of this skill set professionally to aid the meshing of corporate cultures which resulted from mergers and acquisitions. In another arena, many couples/marriage counseling sights have lists of rules for a fair loving fight. These guidelines are also useful within our extended families and social settings.

1. Finding Common Ground

It is easier to discuss issues over which you disagree after first finding a point or points of agreement. Ask questions, look for areas where you can agree and build from there. One example is illegal immigration. You may not agree on how to get there, but you may find that you agree on the fact that the country needs to do a better job of reacting to illegal immigration.

2. Losing an Argument with Grace

In the section “You Can't Win an Argument," of Dale Carnegie's book How to Win Friends and Influence People he says, “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still. " Understand that no matter how strongly you feel about something, you may be unable to convince others to agree with you. Some individuals are simply not open to alternative information or the prospect of changing their mind. If you maintain a civil conversation it may sustain the possibility of future discussions. This is really not a tug-of-war, but even if you know that you are not arguing or fighting for position, it is okay if the other person feels like they won.

3. Looking Beneath the Surface

As you listen, look for clues that may reveal someone’s personal experience or history with an issue. They may have emotions that run much deeper than a rational or logical examination of the facts. Perhaps they have a need to feel secure or respected. Dealing with that type of need is very different than arguing over truth.

4. Being the Adult in a Conversation

If a situation escalates towards unpleasantness, be the person to call a timeout and walk away.

5. Checking Sources

Verify your sources of information before you attend an event. Does the information come from somewhere known for a particular bias? Is if available from more than one source? Do the details come from a resource acting as a front for a particular group? Can you verify the veracity of the information?

6. Knowing the Details

This is also about doing some homework ahead of time. Go beyond headlines and sound bites. Drill down to the source of the information rather than just quoting a media outlet. Try to understand an issue from more than one perspective before going into the conversation or during by asking questions. “What would that look like?” “How would you implement that?” Stories may change when you get into the minutia. It can be embarrassing when the other person has more information about your point than you do.

7. Avoiding Demeaning and Derogatory Nicknames/Terms

There are two levels to this skill. The first is that understanding the preferred vocabulary of another person is an easy way to establish rapport. As an example, a fundamentalist Christian likely prefers being called Evangelical instead of fundamentalist. Calling a Persian or Shikh an Arab will shut you down before you get started. The second part of this could be the most important skill to develop in our current social climate. Don’t use derogatory terms or nicknames; they instantly imply a number of characteristics that are associated with the chosen word. Once that happens, there is no discussion; the walls go up. We need to practice talking about people individually or in groups as human beings.

8. Avoiding Clichés

Thanks in a large part to social media we spend a lot of time “preaching to the choir”. Yes, that is a cliché. Would it be more useful to say that we often talk only to people with whom we agree? Using prefabricated terms and phrases will nearly always elicit a prepackaged response. If we find fresh ways of saying old things we increase the chances of getting new responses.

9. Breathing and Smiling Before Responding

Based on your facial expression, people will read your response before you say a word. By actively taking a breath before you respond and then smiling you can put the other person more at ease.

10. Avoiding Defensive Body Language

This goes along with smiling, but on a much larger scale. Let your body be open, avoid crossing arms or legs. Notice if you are feeling tense and make an effort to relax. An extra breath or two can be helpful. If you have refreshments, take a drink while you consider a response.

11. Showing Respect Even When You Disagree

Too often we dismiss opposing ideas as the opinions of stupid or at best misinformed people. That could be true, but more than likely the other people are just as informed and intelligent as we are, but perhaps in a different manner. Different perspectives make this country strong, not weak. Respect the other person’s point of view. Try to place yourself in their shoes and view it from their eyes. You may find that they, too, have some valid points.

12. Ask Others to Clarify and/or Explain Why Something is Important, or How They Would Do It Differently.

This is a tool for diffusing hot situations. Another Dale Carnegie concept is that it is more important to be interested than interesting. Let people tell you why they feel a certain way and not just what they think. I.e. “How does this affect you directly?”, “How does immigration affect your business? and “What needs to change for you to be able to stay afloat?”

13. Never Making Issues Personal or About a Person/Personality

This can be a tough one and may require much practice. Always steer the conversation back to facts. No one will gain anything if you bring up someone’s past or previous encounters. This also means not discussing personalities that might influence an opinion.

14. Active Listening

There are many books, articles and courses readily available to improve listening skills


Some resources for more information:

If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? by Alan Alda 10 Steps To Effective Listening - Forbes 5 Ways To Improve Your Listening Skills - Fast Company Learn About Active Listening Skills With Examples - The Balance Careers 5 ways to listen better - Julian Treasure TED Talk

In addition to using some of those sources to fluff up your skills, consider developing a mindfulness meditation practice. Listening often fails when a person is composing a response in their mind rather than absorbing what the other person is saying. Meditation can assist focusing on the moment instead of an internal dialogue.

Chrystine Julian is a former Corporate Director of Communications. She is currently a workshop leader, spiritual teacher, writer, poet, artist and stand-up comic. She lives in the Inland Empire region of Southern California.