Dr. Wall Says

Speak up, listen up, bridge the gap

How to Avoid Arguments This Holiday Season (Part I – avoiding the circus)

Here in the U.S., Thanksgiving marks the start of the holiday season. Theoretically, Thanksgiving is about coming together, joining in a ritual designed to show gratitude and appreciation for what we have and those who have helped us get here. Alas, like most gatherings of family and friends, it’s often the stage for un-winnable political arguments, infuriatingly effective baiting by family members with opposing world-views, and unabashed probing into the whats and the whys of how you’re choosing to live your life (When are you going to settle down? How come you don’t have a real job? Why can’t you younger/older generations just get…?!!).

No wonder the mere mention of the holiday season is met with a mix of excitement and dread. This angst is reflected in the flood of articles and posts on how to win this Thanksgiving’s arguments, and my patients’ annual questions about how to avoid them.

Let me start by saying that there is no winning to be had around a family holiday gathering. I say this not in the spirit of season goodwill, but simply as a matter of fact; there is no way to WIN any of these so-called debates, discussions or arguments. The trick then is to figure out how to extricate yourself from the circus that is holiday table debates or how to engage in some kind of meaningful and educational discussion.

Fight or flight?

Personally, I think both approaches are valid. The one you choose will depend on who you’re sitting with, the topic at hand, and how many Sole gins or spiked eggnogs you’ve had. If your aunt Marcy comes at you trying to find out why you didn’t bring a nice young man to dinner, ignoring your girlfriend of two years, chances are you’ll opt for deflection. When your brother starts complaining about his boss and her tendency to use 10 words where three would work, you might choose to engage in a civil and enlightening conversation about the expectations people hold about women’s communication styles and the catch 22 that is direct speech for a female superior.

Whatever your choice, I’m here to help you figure out how to speak up, bridge gaps and avoid pointless arguments this holiday season.

Avoiding the circus

Sometimes you don’t feel like bearing the torch for your cause, some people aren’t willing to listen or learn. That is why this holiday season you’re opting to avoid the circus and step away from arguments. The advice I’ll give you today is the same advice I give my patients. It’s the same advice I try (sometimes unsuccessfully) to follow.

  1. Don’t offer your opinion: I know this sounds really basic, but sometimes that is exactly where you need to start. The best way to avoid a fight is to not engage in it. Offering an opinion about a hot topic is like poking an angry bear, you’re going to get a reaction, and you’ll probably have to wrestle your way out of a tight spot. So when you’re sister’s boyfriend starts talking about the border wall, and you know for a fact that the two of you DO NOT SEE EYE TO EYE on this, hold your tongue. Pointing out that his argument is simplistic is not an innocent comment, it’s a poke.
  2. Be an observer: This is basically the foundation of all fight-avoiding advice. Listen rather than speak. Learn rather than offering your opinion. This can work well in two ways: 1) You might actually learn something informative. 2) Think of it as reconnaissance work. Get to know your opponent, understand their arguments, perspective and ideas and you’ll be well equipped to engage in that heated debate about the value of whiskey over beer and cats over dogs some other day.
  3. Ask questions: Asking questions is a basic engagement and deflection skill. It’s something I see introverts do all the time in social situations to avoid having the spotlight and the mic on them. When Uncle Darrius asks you – yet again – whether you’ll ever give up freelance writing for a real job in a real company, instead of debating the value of your choice, turn the tables around. How does he define a real job? What was his first job? How did he like it? How did he choose his current position? What’s the best part about it? See where I’m going with this? Each successive question moves you further away from a debate about your choices and towards a richer conversation about his. You’ll leave the table with a full stomach and a deeper understanding of your Uncle.
  4. Just say no: Sometimes the best policy is honesty, and saying ‘no thank you’ when you’re asked to give your opinion, time, or thoughts to a conversation is just fine. When your family is debating the reasons why your cousin’s life is a mess and turn to you as the one closest to her in age and, therefore, best equipped to understand what the heck she’s thinking, it’s okay to decline to participate in the discussion. A simple, “That’s a tough one, I’m not her, and I don’t really want to speculate on her motivations, why not ask her directly, ” is a fine lid to put on that can of worms they’re handing you.
  5.  Call ’em out: I’m working with this very passionate woman whose political views are in opposition to her certain close family members. She recently had an annual family gathering and was asking me how to handle the ever-frustrating, never won debates. I proposed strategies 1-4, and then she mentioned that she had an uncle in particular who would push and push and push. What to do? SPEAK UP, that what! Call him out as politely as possible and then say no. In this and many cases it comes down to asking someone why they’re trying to pick a fight, start an argument or debate with you when you clearly are not interested in doing that. It helps to point out that you are not interested in convincing them of anything, nor do you care to be proletized to.

The slick ones

Use any and all of these strategies and you stand a very good chance of enjoying an argument free holiday. Sure, there are still people out there who can pull you into an argument without you even realizing what happening. They are few and far between, but dealing with them can be infuriating, especially since your first inclination that you got baited is often your desire to punch them or walk away crying (or both). When faced with these slick ones, opt for a combination of solutions 4 & 5. Yes, you might feel close to losing it and it might take all your self-control to practice this step, but simply back away (mid-sentence if you have to) and tell them you’re not interested in arguing, and if when they push, call’em out and leave.

If you’re American or celebrating with an American friend or family member, I wish you a very happy Thanksgiving. I hope you get to enjoy the company of those close to you. I hope your conversations are deep and interesting. I wish you laughter and gratitude and joy as the holiday season begins. For everyone else out there, remember these tools works for any occasion, be it a holiday or a company party, a lively dinner with friends or a long train ride next to a talkative and opinionated travel companion.

I’d love to know what strategies you’ll use this season to keep things merry and bright and who, if anyone you’re dreading this holiday. Share them in the comments.

Stay tuned for Part II – Engaging WithoutRaging

If you or your team need help to build connections, bridging gaps and learning how to speak up and stay civil, engaged and moving forward check out my speaking page and the workshops I help individuals and forward-thinking companies find their voice, be heard and build better teams.

And finally, I would be so very grateful if you liked this post and shared it with your networks, families, and friends. Let’s start bridging gaps one conversation at a time.

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Hi! I'm Dr. Alessandra Wall

I help smart driven women and forward-thinking companies bridge the gap & build real conversations.

Here on the ‘Dr. Wall Says’, I share tools, tips, and insights about speaking up, getting heard and how women can take up space and thrive in the 21st century.



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