How to navigate tough topics with family over the holidays

Nov 15, 2018 7:00:00 AM / by Carla Barnhill


It seems like a cruel trick of the calendar that Election Day and Thanksgiving Day fall within a few weeks of each other, especially for families like mine where there are, let’s just say, some ideological differences.

Of course, if you were to peek in the window of my extended family holiday celebrations, you’d never know that one of us (it’s me!) is stuffing down significant angst over everything that’s not being said while the rest of the family happily chats about the weather and the football game and the pie.

We are good Christians after all and no one wants to ruffle any feathers. Instead, we carry on as though the world around us is doing just fine. In the words of Sherri Ann Cabot from Best in Show, “we could not talk or talk forever and still find things to not talk about.”

I’m not sure we can do that anymore

There is no end to controversial or difficult topics on our collective radar, and while it seems easier, nicer even, to just avoid those conversations, I’m not sure that Christians can do that anymore. The world has long been a terrible place for many vulnerable people – refugees, people of color, LGBTQ people – and things seem to be getting worse for many of them.

If God’s people aren’t willing to stand alongside marginalized people in our actions and our conversations the way Jesus calls us to in Matthew 25:31-40, then how are we following Jesus?

When it comes to difficult or potentially explosive conversations, I know my family isn’t the only one that falls into the no-talking camp.

And I know there are other families that take the opposite tack – the one that involves lots of shouting and slammed doors and early departures from family gatherings.

Neither is healthy or helpful, and yet few of us are equipped with the kind of conflict management skills it takes to walk steadily through the many areas of ideological difference roiling around right now. That makes us more inclined to stay silent when someone says something racist or sexist or homophobic at our family gatherings. But it seems to me that people of faith need to get over our fear of conflict and learn how to speak up for others with conviction and kindness.

We can do that by using a few conflict management skills that can keep a conversation from turning into a fight:

Acknowledge that everyone holds their beliefs for a reason


Yes, you might have such vastly different perspectives on the world that you will never agree with each other, but you can – hopefully – recognize that everyone holds their beliefs for reasons that make sense to them.

I have a family member who holds a set of beliefs about guns, war, and violence in general that is so very different from mine that we can barely speak about current events.

But he’s not dumb.

His beliefs come out of his life experience, just like my views come from mine.

And when he and I start a conversation around these topics with a general agreement that we aren’t going to change the other person’s mind, we tend to learn a bit more about both the topic and each other.

Instead of trying to shout or insult someone into agreement, we can find more to talk about when we ask simple questions like, “tell me more about why you think that,” or “I’m interested in hearing more about your experience with that.” Listening to the response with genuine interest can diffuse a tense conversation and help us move beyond stereotypes and assumptions and treat each other with more kindness.

Listen to what’s being said, not what you think is being said

So often, we jump to conclusions about another person’s beliefs because we come into a conversation with a whole set of preconceived notions about what “the other side” thinks.

Do what you can to put those aside and have the conversation that’s in front of you. Listen well, respond honestly and thoughtfully, and try to avoid leaning on your own established talking points.

Be willing to be wrong – and let others be wrong

So many of our difficult conversation come down to a game of “gotcha” in which we wait for the other person to talk themselves into a corner or make a factual error.

Honest, healthy, helpful conversations have to be infused with the marks of God’s call on us to be filled with “compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (Colossians 3:12).

In other words, we need to offer grace, for others and for ourselves.

None of us maintain ideological purity.

None of us has the ultimate answer to the world’s problems.

We are all just working with what we have and trying to live well in the world. So admit what you don’t know or understand, allow yourself to learn something from the other person, and let them do the same.


None of this guarantees world peace, but when Christians demonstrate the ability to do difficult things with love and kindness, we can maybe change our little corners for the better.

Topics: Adults Ministry

Carla Barnhill

Written by Carla Barnhill

Carla Barnhill is the vice president and publisher of Sparkhouse and the creator of the Dialogues On series of adult small group resources that help churches have challenging conversations around important topics.


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