Holiday Conversation Guide – by Felicia Staub

Holiday Conversation Guide – by Felicia Staub


During holiday gatherings, conflict frequently breaks out. You may be seeing friends and relatives that you don’t often see and don’t have much in common with. The holiday atmosphere can lower people’s inhibitions, as can alcohol consumption. We are living in a very divisive age, where people have a lot of polarized opinions and aren’t afraid to voice them. Conflict breaking out at a holiday dinner can make your gathering very unpleasant or in the worst case unsafe. Here are some strategies you can use to approach conflict at these gatherings in a more beneficial way, using the skills you have developed as a mediator.

There’s a lot you can do ahead of time to create an environment that is conducive to connection rather than conflict.

Expectations: Before the day of the dinner or get-together, create the expectation that you will not talk about conflicted topics. And stick to it!

  • Assume the best of the other person, that their intentions are good.
  • Think about how the communication between you and the other person usually goes. Being conscious about it can help you choose to communicate differently, i.e. not get into a fight.
  • Remember the goal: the goal is not to be right or to win an argument but is to have a happy time with each other, connecting.

Triggers: Be aware of your triggers. Knowing what they are and why they are (your interests) can help you moderate your reaction.

  • Your past history of conflict with someone may color your reactions in the present. In your interpretations of others’ behavior, think about whether you’re reacting to your history with them rather than what they are currently saying. Try to focus solely on the present.
  • What are your feelings about this? They are the impact this has had on you.
  • What are your interests? These are the important needs, motivations, or values that are fueling this for you.
  • Notice when you are triggered and remind yourself that you don’t want to fight at your holiday dinner. Tell yourself that you will think about the trigger later once the dinner’s over. And then remember to think about it later. I do this by imaging that I’m putting the triggered thoughts onto a shelf in the closet. When the gathering is over and I am alone, I can figuratively take those thoughts down off the shelf and think about them. This can help you to react differently than you usually do.
  • Do not engage with the other person when you are triggered. Your ability to think is low when you’re in this state.


  • Be intentional about where you seat people (don’t put conflicting parties near each other).
  • Make sure there are different spaces so people can get away from each other.

Topics of conversation:

  • Think about the difficult topics ahead of time and brainstorm some solutions or responses.
  • Create a list of safe topics to talk about, especially things you have in common or things you bond over. If a conflicted issue comes up, you can change the subject to a safer topic.

Escape plans:

  • With someone else you trust who’s attending, plan a signal or code word for when you need support or to be rescued or when they need you to give them support or rescue them.
  • Plan acceptable reasons to leave the room, such as doing the dishes, letting the dog or cat out, checking the napping baby, going to the restroom, etc.
  • Give the problem person something to do, such as setting the table, etc. Provide activities for diversion, like crafts projects with the kids.


Ground rules:

  • Ask for the behavior you want, such as respectful communication, accepting others’ boundaries, etc.
  • Set the tone. If you say or do nice things, others will respond similarly.
  • Assert your boundaries: if you don’t want to discuss the conflicted topic, don’t let someone push you into talking about it.


  • Don’t talk about conflicted topics when people are hungry and irritable or if they’ve consumed a lot of alcohol.
  • Be aware of who else might be listening. For example, you may not want to argue in front of the kids or in front of someone who’s sick.

Mirroring: Be kind. If you treat others with kindness, they are likely to respond similarly. People have a natural tendency to mirror the behavior, body language, and emotions they see in others they’re interacting with. You can intervene with your own automatic mirroring responses and purposefully show the body language, emotions, and behavior that you want to see in the other person, such as calmness, openness, soft volume, open body language, etc. You can’t control another person’s actions or words, but you can control yourself, so make sure to do that.

  • Model the behavior you want to see in others. If you’re spoiling for a fight, others will see how you’re behaving and help make that fight happen.
  • Be intentional about your body language. If you’re expecting a fight, you will have body language that expresses that, such as arms crossed, fists clenched, and angry facial and eye expressions. The other person will mirror your aggressive body language. Instead, choose intentionally to show open body language, such as arms open, body held relaxedly rather than stiffly, facial and eye expressions showing curiosity and a desire to understand.
  • Monitor your emotions. Sometimes, your body knows you’re angry before your mind does. You might show physical signs that you’re angry before you realize that you’re angry. For instance, when I’m angry, my hands get very cold, and my legs start jiggling. Once in a meeting, I was becoming angry, but I hadn’t become aware of that yet. I looked down and saw that my leg was jiggling a mile a minute and thought, “I must be angry.” Having that realization gave me a little bit of distance from the feeling of being angry. Inside my head, I was able to take a moment to touch base with what was causing my anger, what I needed. In that moment, I needed understanding and to be heard. Once I realized what was angering me, I was able to ask for what I needed. This helped me avert my anger response of lashing out and yelling, also losing my ability to think clearly and carefully.

Prioritize the importance of the relationship rather than being right or getting your way.


Safety first:

  • If physical conflict is a concern, develop a personal safety plan.
  • Remove yourself.
  • Do not engage.
  • Limit alcohol and watch for those not limiting theirs.
  • Stay with others. There’s safety in numbers.

Separate people from the problem. It’s easier to de-escalate yourself if you can remember the bond you have with the other person. You’re more likely to remember that if you think of the conflict as the issue rather than as the person.

You can agree to disagree, then talk about other things.


  • Don’t invalidate others. They will escalate if you do.
  • Practice your active listening skills. What are the other person’s emotions about this? Try to imagine how this has impacted them. What are the other person’s interests? Focus on their interests, not their positions. Try to see underneath the ranting to what’s important to the other person (their interests, needs, values, or motivations). Those interests are probably important to you too. Acknowledge their emotions and interests. Do this out loud, i.e. reflect back to them, like you do with mediation parties. Voice your concern for the other person’s interests. Reflecting back to them allows them to vent and feel like they’ve been heard. Remember that yelling means someone wants desperately to be heard. Reflecting back to them will help them feel heard and understood.
  • Ask open-ended questions (ex. tell me more about …). The goal of these questions is understanding. Always make sure to listen to their answers.
  • Give the other person the benefit of the doubt. In other words, assume that their intentions are good.
  • Don’t state your point of view until after you’ve acknowledged theirs. Also, it can be easy to fall into a habit of hearing the first part of what the other person says and then composing your argument for why they’re wrong and you’re right inside your head. While you’ve been composing your response, the other person has continued speaking, and you will have missed it.


  • Once you’ve heard and understood the other person fully, pause before responding. Deep breaths are calming.
  • Do not respond in kind. Be calm and assertive. This is the same as the strategy Cesar Milan uses with the dogs he trains. I’m not saying that your relatives are dogs, but people respond in similar ways to how dogs do. They respond better to calm and assertive behavior than they do to aggressive behavior.
  • Think through what would in mediation be a BATNA. What’s the best alternative to having this argument? What level of engagement with this person do you want?
  • Express yourself genuinely. “When you push me to talk about topics we conflict on, I feel angry. I really want to connect with you while we’re together. Would you be willing to talk about something else instead?” A statement like this includes what happened, how you feel about it, what you need, and a request. This is the communication template from Non-Violent Communication.
  • Use I statements “I’m having trouble seeing how that idea is feasible. Help me understand.” rather than “That idea is stupid.” Framing your statements from “I” rather than “You” takes responsibility for your thoughts and feelings rather than blaming the other person. If you start a statement with You, the other person will hear it as an accusation.
  • Do not express judgements. That will put the other person on the defensive.
  • Use humor to lighten the mood, remembering, of course, to use humor that doesn’t make fun of anyone which would only make things worse.
  • Don’t be a fix-it person. If one side in an argument pushes a solution, the other side likely won’t feel invested in that solution. You have to come up with solutions together.

Controlling your reaction:

  • Do what you need to do to calm yourself, for example, go to your happy place in your head, deep breathing, take a break, go for a walk, take a time out, go somewhere private and do a primal scream, etc.
  • Change who you’re sitting next to. Choose to sit next to someone that doesn’t tend to incite arguments.
  • Self-distance: imagine yourself as a fly on the wall, watching in a detached way. This can calm your anger.
  • Remember this is temporary, just for one day.
  • Take care of yourself, even if that means leaving early or staying away from someone.
  • Set boundaries. If you don’t want to continue arguing, stop by removing yourself. You can always leave.


  • Again, stress the importance of the relationship rather than being right or getting your way.
  • Choose to make the first move toward forgiveness or understanding.

I wish you a very happy holiday gathering with your loved ones, a gathering without conflict or with conflict to a smaller degree so that all involved are able to be heard, understand each other, and remember how important you are to each other.

Felicia Staub, WMA Board Member