A Different Approach to Dealing With Conflict Over the Holidays

Elliott L. Conklin, Psy.D.
November 17, 2023

Holiday season is right around the corner, and we all know what that means: family time, breaking bread, celebration, love…oh and also lots of disagreements, bickering, and political arguments. If this is in your future for the holidays, now is a good time to consider how you want to approach conflict with the people you love.

It seems the popular media are embracing ideas like “eliminate toxic people from your life,” or “don’t waste time with those who don’t accept you.” That might work for certain acquaintances and maybe even some friends, but family is a more complicated matter. It’s also important to consider that not everyone has a mature understanding of what “toxic” or “acceptance” mean in the context of relationships. Sometimes I wonder if the definitions are changing. In my discourse with young people in particular, it seems the bar for “toxic” is getting lower (from harmful and corrosive to annoying or upsetting), and the bar for “acceptance” is getting higher (from understanding and tolerance to 100% full-throated endorsement). We have to find a way to model better.

In my therapeutic work, I don’t recommend taking policies of avoiding conflict in the interest of self-care – fostering fragility – nor do I recommend preparing arguments or rebuttals in anticipation of conflict – fostering rumination. Instead, I encourage clients, and parents in particular, to decide in advance what attitude they want to have toward the person with whom they are in conflict. Sometimes that attitude is “curious,” sometimes it’s “love.” In many instances, we land on the word “compassionate.”

This might seem silly, but imagine putting on a pair of “compassion glasses” before a difficult conversation. Now, when you see the other person, you see some of their context and you can more easily imagine – and even appreciate – how they have arrived at their conclusions (short-sighted and stupid as they may seem). It’s a helpful way to cut through some of the tension and accept your differences. It may even help the other person do the same.

By approaching the other person with an attitude of compassion, you don’t have to win, you don’t have to agree, you don’t have to explain yourself, and you don’t have to find common ground to end the conversation without burning a bridge. You don’t even have to think that hard about what to say because choosing your attitude naturally leads to a corresponding response. There’s no risk of being out-maneuvered. If you think about it, compassion really is the ultimate power move.