Picture this: The whole family is dressed in their festive best, cheerfully gathered around a golden crisp turkey. Then a kid has a meltdown. An uncle brings up politics. Adult siblings start squabbling like teenagers and the dinner table transforms into a battleground. Sound familiar?
While the pandemic might make these memories of gathering feel distant, holidays can still bring up old hurts and new arguments. The government restrictions are clear for our Thanksgiving weekend, with defined limits on how we gather to protect our health. Yet, it still leaves room for different expectations, miscommunications and hurt feelings within families.
“With this polarized world, people are feeling anxious,” says Ernesta Wright, a solutions navigator with the County. “We’re asking: ‘How do I voice my choice? How do I keep my peace while keeping the peace within the family?’ ”
There are no easy answers. But there are still practical ways we can face conflict with kindness. Ernesta offers three tips for navigating hard conversations while keeping your peace intact.
1. Start with introspection
If you feel you’ll need to have tough conversations with family members, start by examining your own boundaries, says Ernesta. “The best thing you can do for yourself is decide on your own comfort level.”
Once you’re clear on where you stand, it’s also important to look at the reason why you want to address your concerns with others. Try to focus on the positive goal of maintaining relationship, rather than working to bring others to “your side,” says Ernesta.
And, when you are ready to have the conversation, choose a time where everyone involved has the physical, emotional and mental capacity. “Don’t start the conversation when people are hungry, angry, tired or lonely. Pause and think about that.”
2. Lean into discomfort
When conflict does arise, you may find yourself backing down from the boundaries you so carefully considered. This is often due to fear of harming or losing a valuable relationship, says Ernesta.
“Fear stops us from giving people credit and allowing them the space to respect our boundary. Fear creates assumptions and a narrative in our minds that isn’t necessarily grounded in truth. It takes away the opportunity for the other party to respond.”
Once you recognize your fear, Ernesta suggests choosing to be open anyway. “If people allow themselves to go to that vulnerable place and pause and sit there, they might be surprised. The other party may be more understanding than we ever anticipated.”
Ultimately, this can lead to more meaningful relationships. “You might tap into a person’s depth that you didn't realize was there. It feels really counterintuitive, but discomfort can bring people closer together.”
3. Take a break
While it’s important to create space for vulnerability, there’s still a possibility the conversation could go awry as tempers flare. In these moments, Ernesta suggests acknowledging that you no longer feel safe and honoring that feeling.
“You’re not responsible for everyone. Be honest and say ‘This is so heavy. I can no longer be a part of this conversation. Do you mind if we maybe talk about something else?’ ”
If the other person refuses to change the subject, it’s okay to walk away, reminds Ernesta. “You have the right to feel safe in any relationship. Even if you don't have words to explain why. If the disrespect continues, you may need to take a break from the relationship.”
Ultimately, there’s no roadmap to handling conflict, but there is hope when we’re real with ourselves and others. And, it’s important to remember that after the last 18 months, we could all practice having some extra grace for ourselves and others.
“You can prepare all you want and things still may go sideways — that’s the messiness and beauty of relationship,” says Ernesta. “Conflict is hard but it’s so worth it. Hopefully you come out with a relationship that’s stronger.”
This story is part of our Be Real. Be Really Kind. campaign to encourage empathy as our community continues to face COVID-19. If you’re struggling with your mental health, finances or just feel overwhelmed, call our Family and Community Services line at 780-464-4044.