The last thing we want to talk about at Christmas lunch is the latest COVID-19 variant and how it has been handled.
Or religion, climate change, politics or generational divides.
And after a tumultuous two years where division has been an outstanding theme of the times, we’re not all going to see eye to eye with our loved ones.
“We all have experienced the last two years differently and that means our boundaries, our emotions and our beliefs will be different,” Melbourne psychologist Chris Cheers told The New Daily.
So if you’re feeling apprehensive about certain conversations at the table, here are four tips from Mr Cheers on navigating difficult conversations this Christmas.
1. Be present
Before festive gatherings, people might find themselves constantly thinking about what Christmas lunch or dinner is going to be like.
Who’s going to be there? What will they say?
“People get lost in thinking about what’s going to happen that they end up predicting that it’s going to be a really negative experience,” Mr Cheers said.
“You think it’s going to be awful, which means you’re walking in with those expectations and that mindset instead of being present in the moment.”
Mr Cheers believes part of this stems from people walking into an event with the intention of having the difficult conversation because they think it’s inevitable.
“But you don’t have to make the conversation happen,” Mr Cheers said.
“If it’s just going to be a really challenging conversation then maybe that’s a battle you can choose not to have at that time.”
2. Communicate boundaries
Focusing on the enjoyable parts of Christmas requires what can be an awkward chat about setting boundaries.
With your loved ones, this might mean letting them know that you don’t like the feelings of tensions that arise when they talk about COVID-19, politics or other divisive topics.
“Come from a place of your own experience,” Mr Cheers advised.
“So, ‘I don’t like the tension that happens when we talk about COVID-19, can we please talk about something else?’.”
In these situations, Mr Cheers often thinks about an idea popularised by research professor Brené Brown, who specialises in courage, vulnerability, shame and empathy studies.
The idea: Clear is kind.
“Often when we approach these situations, we feel like it’s going to make people upset when we are clear about our boundaries,” Mr Cheers said.
“But that’s because our brain tends to have a bias of avoiding immediate discomfort rather than focusing on the benefits of the uncomfortable conversation.”
Be clear and direct in your communication, because boundaries are useless unless you communicate them.
3. Focus on the topic, rather than the person
Try as we might, sometimes difficult, tense conversations just happen.
In that case, avoid using ‘you’ statements – why would you do that? Why are you being like this? – and focus on the topic you’re talking about instead.
Share your opinion on the topic, not the person speaking to you.
“But if you notice that the conversation is becoming unhelpful, it’s as simple as saying, ‘I think this conversation is becoming aggressive, so I think it’s best that we stop things here’,” Mr Cheers said.
Remind yourself that you can choose to take a timeout from a conversation if you’re feeling overwhelmed or stressed.
Give yourself permission to leave.
“Do some deep breathing, notice your emotions and remind yourself that they’re a normal part of these complex situations,” Mr Cheers said.
If you notice a family member or friend is feeling overwhelmed when a particular topic comes up, the best thing you can do is ask them how they are and listen.
“Don’t feel like you have to fix their problem or make them feel better,” Mr Cheers said.
“Validate their emotions, rather than trying to come up with all the answers.”
A really important question you can ask your loved ones is: “What does support look like for you?”