Navigating Holiday Communication
Anna Wolfe, an assistant professor in the College of Liberal Arts’ Department of Communication, studies how dialogue can build bridges for deeper shared understanding. She explains why conversations with family can sometimes be difficult for many during the holiday season, and shares ways to be a better listener and communicator.
Why can communication with family become tense and difficult during the holiday season?
“There are as many answers to this question as there are definitions of a ‘family.’ In general, though, conflicts are often rooted in fears and insecurities. When we express anger or outrage, it’s often a defensive response to a deeper concern. So, when we go home for the holidays, we’re often negotiating a lot of identity tensions related to our shifting roles and relationships relative to parents, siblings and others.
When an argument breaks out about obeying ‘the rules in this house,’ for example, parents may be grappling with concerns about being viewed as respectable and authoritative, and children may be struggling to assert themselves as independent, competent adults.”
How can we navigate difficult conversations, specifically around polarizing topics?
“Avoidance is only really an option when the problem is trivial. Otherwise, not addressing the conflict just allows the tensions to bubble under the surface of conversations.
Regardless of whether the conversation is about a political issue or a personal life choice or some other point of contention, my advice would be the same: To navigate difficult conversations, we have to change the way that we listen.
Often, we listen to respond, to argue back. We listen for an idea to attack. Having good conversations about difficult topics requires that we listen for understanding. We need to ask questions to move past people’s positions and to try to hear their reasons. When I stop focusing on what you are saying and try to understand why you are concerned, there’s greater potential for finding compassion or a point of connection across our differences.”
What tips do you have for healthy communication among families?
“If the conversation is escalating and you can feel yourself losing control over your emotions, calmly explain that you are getting upset and need to pause the conversation until you can say what you want to say more clearly. Then, actually set a time (after dinner, tomorrow morning) that might be more appropriate for talking about the issue again.
Remember that every conflict involves at least two people and that you play a meaningful role in keeping the conflict going. Even if you are only responsible for one percent of the conflict, own 100 percent of your one percent.”