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University of Iowa professor on avoiding fraught family debates over the holidays
‘When people say something that might trigger you … ask a question’
IOWA CITY — The adage of never talking religion or politics with family and friends, especially over dinner or the holidays, is getting harder to follow these days considering those off-limits subjects increasingly are bleeding into topics typically deemed safer — like the rising cost of the turkey, the weather, or even Taylor Swift.
While family arriving to a holiday gathering a decade ago might have come with a clean slate, many today come fired up and ready to pounce over comments made and seen on one social media giant or another — platforms that themselves have become the subject of political discord.
But a path to holiday harmony exists, according to University of Iowa management and entrepreneurship professor Michele Williams, who for more than five years has taught courses on inclusive leadership and negotiations in the UI Tippie College of Business.
“The dispute resolution, conflict resolution and negotiation tactics are actually things that we can apply to everyday life to make our gatherings more positive,” Williams said.
Among potentially fraught topics at this season’s holiday gatherings — above and beyond religious and political land mines — are gas prices, grocery bills, Twitter, worker conditions, the World Cup, even concert ticket sales. The breadth of looming conflict zones today is so wide, Williams said, just avoiding them might be impossible.
“So I think that when conversations come up, if people can handle them as a dialogue — so an exploration of joining a shared understanding,” Williams said, “that orientation to the conversation may allow it to take a more positive bent, where people come to a greater understanding and appreciation of each other.”
Of course, keeping emotions at bay during heated discussions on hot topics is easier said than done, which is why Williams suggests three techniques for achieving dialogue rather than debate.
First, she said, listen with intention to understand.
“Americans tend not to listen, or they listen just enough to answer, say what they want to say, or prove the other side wrong,” she said. “And that’s a debate tactic.”
Try instead something called “generative listening,” Williams said — seeking to understand someone through the most generous and positive light, assuming their best intentions.
“So that’s No. 1, listening with empathy and grace and in a generative way.”
Her second tip is to slow down.
“A lot of times, our conversations get away from us,” she said, highlighting how quickly a discussion can escalate into a debate or even argument. “We are so quick to respond.”
Instead, Williams suggested using a University of Michigan-developed listening technique called the LARA method — which stands for listening, affirming, responding and then adding any additional insights, information, or questions to the conversation.
The affirming piece is important in that it challenges the listener to repeat back what they’ve heard before responding with their thoughts. It also assures the speaker that she or he has been understood, according to Williams.
“That slows down the conversation to make sure people feel heard,” she said.
The third technique is to “stay curious.”
“When people say something that might trigger you … ask a question,” Williams said. “How did you come to that conclusion?
“Sometimes you can uncover assumptions either that you're making, or that they're making, which makes you able to at least agree to disagree, rather than jumping down each other’s throats.”
Of course, if all else fails, hosts can have in their back pocket an “escape valve,” Williams said. It can be something they share with others — like a code word. Or just an internal plan for diversion if discussions devolve into debates or arguments.
“They might say that if things start going down the wrong track and we’re not comfortable, we’re going to say, ‘Let’s take the dog for a walk. Let’s go out for a walk. Let’s have hot chocolate,’” she said. “Have a word that signals that escape valve, so they can put that conversation aside for the holidays.”
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