How to Handle Tough Conversations around the Christmas Table

It’s coming up to that time of the year again. You’re going to be having Christmas lunch or dinner with your extended family or friends, and maybe there’ll be a little alcohol involved 🍺

Loose tongues, full stomachs and controversial topics often lead to unproductive, and occasionally hurtful disagreements between people who should be having a good time.

It’s safe to say that we’re overwhelmed with hot-button issues at the moment. We’re spending more time than ever online, and your 80 year-old great aunt is probably more active on Facebook than you are. Then you’ve got Zoomer nieces and nephews who can do every Tik Tok dance known to man 💃

Spending so much time online often means you get sucked into echo chambers of people who agree with you, and it’s easy to become tribal and intolerant when you’re constantly having your opinions fed back to you. But at Christmas, you might have to deal with loved ones with whom you don’t agree at all…

At Think Inc. we’re all about having difficult conversations, because without them we’d never get to the truth. We believe in freedom of thought and expression, and that everyone should be empowered with the tools to think and learn for themselves. That’s why we’ve compiled a list of tips and tricks that’ll help you through tough conversations around the dining table this Christmas.

Do some critical thinking

Cognitive biases – we’ve all got them! A cognitive bias is a strong, preconceived notion based on information we have (or don’t have). These preconceptions are mental shortcuts the human brain produces to quickly make sense of what it is seeing.

The issue with biases is that they make it difficult for us to get to the truth or to understand the information we’re being given. Biases also distort our critical thinking, leading to us passing on misconceptions or misinformation that can be dangerous to the person hearing it.

Biases make us want to avoid information that makes us uncomfortable, and to see patterns or connections between ideas that aren’t necessarily there.

Common types of cognitive biases are:

  1. Confirmation bias: the tendency to listen more often to information that confirms our existing beliefs. It makes you favour information that reinforces the beliefs you already have.

    E.g. your dad is willing to listen to you when it comes to football, as you both support the same team. But when you switch topics to the issue of coal mining, he doesn’t want to hear about any of the negatives because it goes against his beliefs.

  2. Hindsight bias: a common cognitive bias that involves the tendency to see events, even random ones, as more predictable than they are. It’s also commonly referred to as the “I knew it all along” phenomenon.

    E.g. your aunt says she knew a pandemic like COVID was going to happen, and that she predicts another one in two years’ time.

  3. Anchoring bias: the tendency to be overly influenced by the first piece of information that we hear. Sometimes certain words or feelings stick in our head and become anchored to an idea.

    E.g. The first time you heard about a certain politician, it was in a scathing hit-piece against them. Now when your uncle brings him up, your first thought is that he’s a bad dude.

  4. The halo effect: the tendency to allow our impression of a person, company, or business in one domain to influence our overall impression of the person or entity.

    E.g. your cousin did well at highschool, so now your grandma sees everything he does as spectacular, even if it’s not.

Most of us have at least one of the cognitive biases listed above, but just because they’re common, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work on improving them. Learn how to in our Think Inc. Academy course Logic, Fallacies, & Biases: The Art of Critical Thinking.

It’s a four-week course in rationality, showing you how to evaluate sources, weigh evidence, and reason logically. Our aim is not to teach you what to think, but how to think. You can also check out out one of our prescribed readings The Basics of Critical Thinking by Stuart Hanscomb.

Don’t get too tribal

We live in a polarised and tribal time in the West. Certain topics, even if they’re not related to politics, are quickly associated with “the Left” or “the Right”, leaving little room for discussion.

This ties back into critical-thinking. Your discussions should be based on rationality, and not on group loyalty. It’s easy to see someone’s identity narrowly and simplistically or as a threat, and therefore we see no use in collaborating.

Look at the individual, not the group. Remember that iron sharpens iron, and it’s good to have your beliefs challenged so that you get better at expressing them.

For example, if your brother starts hating on one political leader who you’re a fan of, instead of just getting angry and walking away, stay calm and try to see if he has any good points. Perhaps he does, and you’ll form a more cohesive argument based on his criticisms.

If you’re interested in why us humans are so tribal and polarised, register your interest for our highly unique and relevant course Politics as the New Religion.

And check out Jon Haidt’s book on this topic – The Righteous Mind

Be Stoic

The ancient life philosophy of Stoicism provides some really helpful lessons in how to handle fiery or uncomfortable conversations with loved ones. Here are just a handful of lessons you can put into practice to keep your cool when things heat up around the dinner table.

  1. Stress less about things you can’t control

    “We cannot choose our external circumstances, but we can always choose how we respond to them.”
    Epictetus

  2. Keep in mind that only you are in control of your own actions. If a family member is being difficult, all you can do is show them a better way of being and lead by example. Beyond that, letting them get you riled up isn’t going to help anything.

  3. Tell the truth

    Love the truth and seek wisdom is one of the primary virtues of stoicism. If someone is saying something that’s incorrect or untrue, don’t just go along with it.

  4. Be humble

    Part of wisdom is humility – the Stoics really cared about being humble.
    “There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.”
    Ernest Hemingway

    Hemingway was also influenced by the Stoics it seems 😉

  5. Don’t wilfully misinterpret people. Act with justice

    Strawmanning is when you exaggerate or misrepresent someone’s argument to make yours look better.

    E.g. You say that drinking and eating too much on Christmas isn’t a good idea, and your grandma says “of course you’d say that, you hate fat people”.

    Try to steelman instead. Steelmanning is when you help your ‘opponent’ to construct the strongest form of their argument.

    E.g. Instead of your grandma strawmanning your argument, she says “so it appears you’re saying that people shouldn’t drink and eat too much because it’s bad for their health. Is that correct? I understand what point but don’t agree because of…”

  6. Moderation or temperance

    This is perhaps the key virtue you should hold when having uncomfortable conversations.

    The Stoics often used temperance interchangeably with “self-control.” Self-control, not just towards the abundant Christmas ham and cake, is key.

    Don’t get too excited about the good things, or too down about the bad. Temperance is guarded against extremes, not relying on the fleetingness of pleasure for happiness nor allowing the fleetingness of pain to destroy it.

    “It is possible to curb your arrogance, to overcome pleasure and pain, to rise above your ambition, and to not be angry with stupid and ungrateful people — yes, even to care for them.:
    Marcus Aurelius

  7. Roll with it and have a good time

    In the end, if things get tough, embrace it.

    “Every difficulty in life presents us with an opportunity to turn inward and to invoke our own submerged inner resources. The trials we endure can and should introduce us to our strengths. Prudent people look beyond the incident itself and seek to form the habit of putting it to good use.”
    Epictetus

Remember that we don’t get to choose our family, just our friends, presents and christmas food! So focus on that.

And if you’re interested in stoicism, be sure to register your interest for our future Think Inc. Academy classes of How to Be a Stoic: Ancient Wisdom for a Happier Life.