Essential Conversations with Dr. Amy: Achieving family harmony despite differing viewpoints

As we get closer to the holiday season, some of us may be feeling concerned about how jolly our time with extended family might be if we engage in certain conversations. For example, the pandemic and vaccination status has become a contentious topic that has, in many cases, led to family drama and upset. Family members may have different viewpoints about how safe it is to get together, whether everyone needs to be fully vaccinated, or whether masks may even be necessary in some situations.

Is the solution to avoid talking about these difficult topics so we don’t create more disharmony? Or are there ways to have these conversations that allow everyone to feel safe and respected? As uncomfortable as these discussions may be, following are ideas for talking about difficult topics in a manner that may actually make the holidays more fun and harmonious for everyone.

Before beginning a potentially conflictual conversation, remind yourself about the goal: to preserve or deepen the relationship and to better understand why someone holds a certain viewpoint. This is very different from wanting to change their mind or prove to them that what they think is wrong. Make sure you are clear about your motivation before starting a conversation.

Assuming the best about the person you are going to have a difficult conversation with can also help you get in the right frame of mind. If entering a conversation about COVID, you could—probably accurately—assume the other person also want the pandemic to end and for all family members to be healthy and safe. They may have different ideas about how to achieve those goals, but their goals are the same.

At the start of the conversation, it is a good idea to set the stage by conveying to the person that they, and your relationship, are very important to you. It also helps to share that your goal is to better understand how they think and feel about this topic, not to change their mind. Starting the conversation this way is a very effective way to create safety and remind each other that the issues that you may disagree about are separate from how much you value each other.

Another way to lower the tension level is to share your fears, rather than just your thoughts. Melody Stanford Martin, in her article, 11 Tips for Talking to Someone you Disagree With,* states that, “all conflict has some kind of fear at its core.” With the pandemic, perhaps you are afraid that if someone in the family isn’t fully vaccinated, they may get critically ill if they get COVID. And your unvaccinated family member may be afraid they will have a serious reaction if they get vaccinated, and that feels more likely to them than getting ill from the virus. If you take the leap and express your fears, it creates more safety for someone to share theirs.

Make sure that you acknowledge you have heard their fears and empathize with those, even if they seem illogical. It is a common human need to feel heard, seen and understood. We may not agree with someone, but by conveying empathy we can meet their need to be acknowledged.

Now you can move into talking about your viewpoints and your sources of information. It’s likely that your sources may be critiqued, which isn’t a bad thing. Many people today are relying on information that may not come from reputable places. Knowing that someone is likely to ask us about where we are getting our information may help us to consider the accuracy of what we are quoting. This is true for both parties in the discussion! You may need to explore sources that you both can agree are legitimate and accurate.

In the conversation, continue to look for places you agree with each other. Remind each other that you both want the pandemic to be over and for everyone to feel safe. Coming back to common ground can help keep tension levels down.

Remind yourself it really is ok to “agree to disagree” with someone you love. We will never agree on everything with the people we love. But we can still love them, even if we don’t like their viewpoint on something. If you can’t agree on how everyone can feel safe being together, you can come up with alternative ways to celebrate the holidays this year. If it feels like too many people together at this point, maybe a few family members gather in someone’s home and a few others gather in someone else’s home and the two parts of the family have some zoom time together. Be creative! Remember: better understanding and preserving family harmony are the goals.

If you have had an Essential Conversation about the pandemic or another tough topic, thank the person for being willing to talk with you. Acknowledge these conversations are hard and how much you appreciate that they were willing to talk with you about a sensitive topic. Doing that opens the door to the likelihood of more open and honest communication in the future.