Keep the peace: Navigating divisive discussions, stressful situations during the holidays

WASHINGTON Holiday gatherings with family and friends are meant to bring comfort, joy and all the happy feelings that only spiked eggnog can lend. But sometimes, things don’t go as planned.

Cheerful chatter can turn into divisive discussions, and juggling family obligations of where to be and when can be stressful.

From political divides to family divides, two experts offer their best tips for keeping the peace during the holiday season.

The election may seem like it was eons ago, but it’s still top of mind and top of the headlines for many. Just because the country is divided, doesn’t mean your living room needs to be.

Lizzie Post, president of the Emily Post Institute and co-host of the Awesome Etiquette podcast, said one of the best ways to avoid a heated political debate at your holiday gathering is to stick to neutral topics.  

“I tend to go for topics that are about the other person. ‘Tell me about your trip; tell me about your new job; tell me about your new roommate.’ I mean, anything,” she said. “I try to get people to talk to me about their life.”

Post makes it clear that entering into a political discussion, itself, isn’t rude. It just depends on where you are, and a holiday party isn’t the best venue for an enlightened exchange of ideas.

If someone else brings up the topic and you don’t care to partake, deflect to something else.

Post recommends this response: “Oh, I hear about politics so much I’m just dying to not talk about it tonight,” she said.

“It’s OK to express that this is not something you want to talk about.”

Post said it’s important to remember that just because you share blood with your relatives, doesn’t mean you share the same viewpoints, so don’t assume there will be universal agreements.

“Because you just don’t know what the opinion of the person you’re talking to is going to be on that particular matter,” she said.

If you’re the host of the party and notice remarks are getting too heated and heavy, Post said be tactful, but firm, and suggest the conversation is better suited for another night.

“You, as a hostess, can step in and say, ‘As much fun as that conversation might be, I’d really love to stay away from politics, and I’ve been dying to hear about, you know, the new promotion that you just got at work.’”

And finally, if you’re feeling tempted to question Uncle Bill about his stance on foreign policy, just remember what the holidays are really about.

“These gatherings are about getting us together for the warmth and generosity and love of family. They aren’t to sit there and gloat or to pick apart someone’s brain on something or to give ‘I told you so’s.’ It’s really about gathering and sharing and connecting with one another,” Post said.

“And gosh, there are so many other things that we can talk about other than politics.”

A divorce is hard no matter the time of the year, but the difficulties of a separation are augmented around the holidays especially if kids are involved.

“The most common issue is that you used to have a single family going to the same place, the same time, together every year and now this year it’s not happening,” said Alan Plevy, a partner at SmolenPlevy in Vienna, Virginia.

His best piece of advice is civility for the sake of the little ones.

“It’s really a holiday for the children, so we want to eliminate as much stress as possible for the children,” he said.

To lessen the chances of frustration, keep the lines of communication open between you and your ex. Sit down and decide where the kids will be and when, and what they need to pack for their time spent with each parent. Is a dress required for Christmas Eve with dad? Are festive PJs fine for Christmas Day brunch?

Put it in writing, whether via email or text, to eliminate the possibility of misunderstandings. Then share that information.

“Fill the kids in on where they are going to go, who they are going to see, so that there’s no question in their minds,” Plevy said. “Not knowing where they’re going or when they’re going to go creates a lot of stress.”

One thing that’s especially hard for children is giving up old family traditions. Plevy said the best thing to do is start new ones, such as volunteering at a homeless shelter, going ice skating or making reservations at one of their favorite restaurants “so the children have something to look forward to at the end of the day.”

However, be careful not to overcompensate. If the children are overly spoiled or are showered with too many gifts, it may cause your ex to feel as if you are initiating a competition.

“We get into a competition over size [of the gift], we get into a competition over money [spent on the gift], and people end up spending more than they would normally,” Plevy said.

“Christmas is not about gifts; it’s about keeping the children happy.”

Finally, pay special attention to how you and others talk about your ex. If you’re out with your kids and other family members feel the need to start hurling insults at your ex, Plevy said it’s important to put an end to it immediately.

“It’s very important for parents to act as adults, but it’s important for extended family members to also act as adults too,” he said, adding that your children will appreciate you sticking up for their other parent.

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