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Seven Tips to Tame the Tension

Michelle Sobel

Michelle Sobel

Nov 18, 2022

Sep 14, 2023


Here are seven tips and a list of curated resources to help you diffuse a tense dinner table dynamic and enjoy more productive (and flavorful) discussions.

Tip #1: Use "I" and Not "You"

From negotiation expert Alexandra Carter

“I train people to negotiate in high conflict situations all the time — whether it’s at the United Nations or within their own families. Over and over, I’ve found one thing to be true: you’re much more persuasive when you focus on yourself — your needs, your goals — than when you try to control the actions of others. The best way to set boundaries is to communicate them by using ‘I’ — not ‘you.’

For example, instead of saying, ‘You haven’t socially distanced, so I’m not coming,’ try: ‘I know you’d like to see me in person; I just don’t feel comfortable exposing everyone to the risk of getting sick.’

Or, you might be tempted to say, ‘Please leave your Facebook voter fraud rants off the table,’ but ‘I want to be clear that I won’t be engaging in talk about the election,’ sets a calm, clear tone and will be more effective.”

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Tip #2: Listen to Learn

From clinical and consulting psychologist David Nicholson

“If someone is really passionate about their causes, instead of debating them, why not listen? The more you listen, the more you’ll learn the emotions behind their views. Maybe you’ll find something to agree on. Maybe you’ll cordially agree to disagree. But neither conclusion is possible if you don’t listen.

Try listening from a standpoint of understanding — not from a point of debate.”

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From  N'dea Yancey-Bragg at USA Today

Families are predictable, and if you know your uncle is going to bring up something controversial, prepare for that conversation emotionally ahead of time, said Bill Doherty, professor of family social science at University of Minnesota.

Don't approach the conversation by trying to change a family member's mind about something, said Doherty, who co-founded Braver Angels, a nonprofit group that runs workshops, debates, and other events for people across the political spectrum.

"That's what we call the prime directive," he said. "Have instead a goal of understanding where the other person’s coming from, explain where you’re coming from and to see what comes out of that."

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Tip #3: Find Common Concerns

From Andrew J. Hoffman, Professor at the Ross School of Business and School of Environment and Sustainability, University of Michigan

“If there is an opportunity to build bridges, maybe the topics of common concern to start the conversation include: the need to invest in upgrading our highways, bridges and transportation infrastructure; the corrupting influence of money in politics and possibilities for campaign finance reform; the practice of influence peddling and the proposal for time limitations on when government officials can become lobbyists; programs to increase opportunities for upward mobility like making college education more affordable; or programs to help ease the burden that workers feel when they are displaced by technology, automation, globalization or policy shifts.

It may not be easy or pleasant at first, but it’s at least a start. And maybe you’ll be surprised.”

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Tip #4: Honor The Holiday's Complexity

From the Center for Racial Justice and Education

"While holidays are generally thought of as cultural practices, we also know that non-dominant cultures and religions are often racialized and seen as 'other' in the United States, especially during this time.

Although the holidays are regarded as a festive and happy time, we also acknowledge that this time of year can bring up a mix of emotions for families. Feelings of anxiety, sadness, and depression are common and can be amplified for families of color and marginalized communities."

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Tip #5: Say “And” and Not “But”

From author Gwen Moran for Fast Company

“Many of us pay a great deal of attention to being effective communicators. Still, one little word, firmly planted in the middle of many sentences, could be negating what we say and turning people off to our messages: But.

‘It acts like a mental eraser and it often buries whatever you’ve said before it,’ says Colleyville, Texas communications consultant Dianna Booher, author of What More Can I Say: Why Communication Fails and What to Do About It. ‘It makes communication spiral down instead of spin up.’

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Again from negotiation expert Alexandra Carter

“Too often, we try to engage people by saying some version of the following: ‘I hear what you’re saying but that just isn’t factual.’ Or ‘I care about our election process too, but this president is actually weakening our system.’

What happens to people when they hear the word ‘but’? Two things. First, they don’t remember, or care about, everything that came before it. For example, if in talking to your spouse you say, ‘I appreciate that you did the laundry, but the dishes have been in the sink for three days,’ you provoke defensiveness as your spouse remembers the criticism without the previous compliment.

The other problem with ‘but’ is that people discount all the points you make afterward. Why? Because ‘but’ is a word that separates you from other people. Research shows that people are persuaded by those who share things in common with them, and also by people they like. When you use ‘but’ in your conversations, people come away feeling like you don’t have anything in common and therefore they don’t need to credit your ideas.”

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Tip #6: Invite Personal Stories Instead of Opinions

From Katie Hyten for on Talking about Vaccination Choices Before the Holidays

“​​How can I ask a question that invites a personal story rather than an opinion? Questions can open people up or close them off. Try to ask questions that invite a personal story or experience, or to share what's at the heart of the matter in regards to their perspective. Ask questions like: 'What do you wish people understood about your decision?' or 'What in your decision most resonates with a value about how you want to live your life?'"

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Tip #7: Remember Our Humanity

From author Rory Margraf on

“​​We have become walking ballots, to be embraced in fraternal warmth or cast out like a pariah from the lives of persons we once, and may still, love. If our identities are defined only in this way, we risk not only our humanity, but the very nature of liberty... If we continue to allow ourselves to be defined by parties, factions, and politicians, we will cease to be free and will become increasingly easier to manipulate, control, and harm, often at the hands of those closest to us...

If you continue to struggle with this, seeing red, blue, and maybe even gold and green everywhere and you find yourself with relationships beyond repair, consider the words of another president, who saw genuine division, conflict, and despair. ‘I do not like that man. I must get to know him better,’ Abraham Lincoln.”

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