Experts: Spend more time listening than talking

Leilana McKindra OSU communications
Every family can expect some degree of tension in the air during holiday gatherings. Oklahoma State University

STILLWATER — The holidays can get stressful enough without the potential for drama sparked by overheated debates and contentious conversation during the traditional family meal.

The reality is every family can expect some degree of tension in the air at holiday gatherings. Folks who have likely traveled at least some distance for the occasion are coming together under the same roof and often in tight spaces.

Trouble can start brewing, though, when someone locks in on a point and cannot let it go, said Matt Brosi, Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension marriage and family state specialist and associate professor of marriage and family therapy.

“Sometimes people are looking to make their point known and defend their position, while others are simply interested in dialoguing about relevant topics,” Brosi said. “When conversations turn from curiosity and reflection to blaming and people feeling that a closely held value is attacked, they often become defensive.”

Conversational gridlock can frequently occur between people when everyone tries to defend their position, which can easily lead to raised voices, passion, blaming and a virtual inability to hear what others are saying.

In an effort to head off what could be an ugly clash of perspectives and personalities, begin by spending more time listening rather than talking, said Nathan Hardy, assistant professor of marriage and family therapy at OSU.

“Don’t be afraid to share your position, but do it in a loving, respectful manner. Try reflecting on being together and what the holiday season is really about,” Hardy said. “Be sensitive to others who may be feeling emotionally raw and try not to provoke a reaction from them.”

If despite best efforts things do boil over, someone needs to step up to help diffuse the situation.

“Be the one to say ‘this is a good conversation, but it may be best for everyone to take a break,’” said Hardy, who emphasized the importance of everyone taking ownership of their role in an out-of-control situation, including taking stock of how their emotions, anxieties and values may have contributed to the breakdown in communication.

“Don’t deceive yourself into believing you’re the ‘rational’ person in the debate,” he said. “Folks need to truly reflect.”

In attempting to mend any rift, tolerating differences and being flexible in terms of others’ points of view, rather than seeing them as a threat, should be top priorities.

That said, combative exchanges may not be the worst thing ever. However, family members need to be willing to let down their guard, accept others’ positions and be open to validating that others are just as passionate about their own views.

“Understand that if things get heated, it’s OK,” Brosi said. “Although these issues are difficult for many families, they create opportunities for the best in each of us to stand up and be heard. It’s a chance for us to become more aware of our beliefs and values and to begin sharing these with others. Ultimately, this is one way to learn how to be more respectful of others who are different from us.”