Sitting down to a holiday season meal with friends and family can be fun, but it can also be a recipe for disaster if it serves up political opinions, invasive questions and family gossip.
This time of year can be stressful, and the recent impeachment hearings and divisive political climate only add to the potential tension, said Jonathan Vickburg, a mental health supervisor and counselor with the Cedars-Sinai Share & Care program.
Spirited debates or discussions within families can be healthy and constructive, but when conflict and disagreements escalate, often feelings are hurt, relationships can be damaged and the holidays are no longer enjoyable."
Jonathan Vickburg, mental health supervisor and counselor with the Cedars-Sinai Share & Care program
Carrie Kohler, a Christian chaplain at Cedars-Sinai, has seen her share of family conflict. As a chaplain, her work often involves meeting a family during a painful, tumultuous or otherwise stressful moment in their lives.
"It can be so much harder to set boundaries with family, but you don't have to engage in a debate or answer prying questions about your personal life," she said. "Just acknowledging that can be helpful."
When it comes to family holiday dinners and get-togethers, there's something to be said for getting out ahead of the conversations, Kohler said.
"If you're the host, asking your guests ahead of time to come prepared to talk about something they're grateful for sets a tone for the evening, and really helps move the conversation in that direction," she said.
If you do choose to engage in a debate, know your boundaries, said Jewish chaplain Rabbi Sarah Barukh. She uses a three-step strategy to keep conversations civil.
"First, keep in mind something that you really like about the person," Barukh said. "It can be too easy to disconnect from the humanity in front of you, and that can make a conversation go nowhere pretty quickly."
Next, according to Barukh: Evaluate your overall goal for the conversation.
"If you're going in with the expectation of changing somebody's opinion, you're most likely going to leave very frustrated," Barukh said.
You may need to be willing to simply state your opinion and accept that others might not ever agree with you, she said.
"Lastly, have an exit strategy. Know what your boundaries are and be prepared to say, 'I'm not getting into that today,' or change the subject," Barukh said.
Practicing these strategies helps us to remain calm, grounded and present, said Vickburg. He also recommends making some time for yourself during the holidays. That could mean spending time with a favorite relative, exercising outdoors, meditating or catching up with a friend.
"In this way, we can enjoy unique and positive experiences during the holidays," he said.