Man at His Best

We Asked A Professional Mediator How To Deal With Furious Christmas Dinner Table Arguments

Seat people tactically, don't drink too much and control your reactions if you do have it out.

BY Olivia Ovenden | Dec 4, 2016 | Culture

Christmas is a time for family, which might prove difficult if you can't look them in the eye given their political inclinations. The cliché of having to spend the holidays humouring your racist uncle holds a little more bite this year, and a game of KerPlunk won't fix that particular rift.

If you're dreading facing him, or your super left-leaning cousin in her 'I ❤ EU' jumper, then professional help might be what you need. Jane Robey is the CEO of National Family Mediation and has over 20 years experience in reconciling difficult situations. "We give people strategies to avoid conflict" she explains, and with that in mind we asked her for tactics you can use to divert a potential argument.

She also explained how to discuss controversial topics rationally and enter the New Year without having embedded a parsnip in someone's skull...

Prepare neutral conversation topics

Sometimes, no matter how good your intentions, someone pipes up with a topic that throws you. Maybe you heard your mum chopping vegetables while gleefully cheering about not having EU-regulated vegetable peelers any more. These days, even your gran mumbling "funny old year eh?" might set your shaky nerves to panic mode.

This is when having some safe conversation topics rehearsed comes in handy, and the duller the better. Jane recommends you, "Acknowledge awkward conversation topics and say something like, 'We know we don't agree on this lets not have an argument over lunch' and drive the conversation elsewhere." Explain you've been re-watching Lost and carefully explain the entire plot of season 2 or tell a painfully long-winded anecdote about your colleague. Make them up if you have to.

Leonardo dicaprio

Be careful with drinking too much

A gentle reminder that though you might feel like gregarious after six glasses of Christmas cocktails, you may not be your most charming self. Jane points out that we all start drinking much earlier than normal on Christmas day and this catches up with us.

"Alcohol lowers your inhibitions," she says. "There's not much point telling people not to drink at Christmas but maybe make a pact beforehand that you know you're all drinking but agree not to argue." If you know Aunt Mildred gets a bit wicked after too much vodka then limit the supply or try to make sure everyone has plenty to eat, lest you start accusing your father of being racist. 

Strategically seat people

An excellent piece of psychology you might want to know: sitting people directly next to each other reduces chances of conflict. Unlike sitting facing someone which is more confrontational, the proximity of being next to someone makes people less likely to lay into each other.

Devise your Christmas table seating plan with tensions in mind, Jane advises: "Everybody knows their family and who is likely to be contentious given a certain set of circumstances. We all know what part we play in our family dynamic so use that to avoid conflict"

Wine family Christmas

Address the elephant in the room and use it for good

If the issue is hanging over you, Jane suggests being open about your position and getting the politics out the way early. That might be unadvisable if things are particularly bad or you ever want to ever, ever speak again, but addressing the elephant in the room can often help ease tension.

If you do end up having it out, "You need to apply really the same skills as you might when separating," Jane says. "Remember that everyone has a right to be heard and listened to, mutual respect has to be a two way street."

"People are so consumed by their own interests of winning the argument or keeping their reputation in tact that they often forget what they want to achieve from an argument" Jane says. If you do have talk about the old EU in-out Hokey Cokey then use the opportunity get your point across and help relatives understand why you're upset.


Control your response rather than controlling others:

Politics are especially emotionally charged in the current climate, so what starts as a simple conversation about inflation ends with you screaming at Uncle Stephen that he's completely out of touch on every conceivable issue. "You have no control over anyone else," Jane says, "the only thing you can control is yourself."

"Family arguments tend to take the same shape no matter what you're discussing and always end up somewhere you didn't intend. If you don't respond in the way that is expected of you that will generate a different outcome to the one that you've always traditionally got." Not rising to someone's baiting method will force them to change their tactic - plus, take some comfort in the fact that it's the most infuriating thing you can do.


Don't force conversation

If you are having a lovely time catching up with your family, enjoying food and woeful Christmas films then you're doing it right. You don't have to ruin it talking about politics. Jane points out that many people aren't comfortable discussing politics or religion so don't force an argument on something that is private for many people.

As National Review pointed out: when discussing mixing politics and Thanksgiving, "There's a lot more to our relatives than their voting histories and political perspectives."


From: Esquire UK