Conversation Tips for Surviving the Holidays

Sometimes, you just can't relate to your relatives. Whether it's sports, politics, or past events, gathering around a dinner table during the holiday season can be a daunting prospect. Communication expert Angie McArthur explains some of her cardinal rules for connecting with your family and friends, and she identifies one of the biggest errors people make: asking the wrong questions.

The root of the word 'question' is 'quest', as in endeavoring to know something—but how often is that really our motivation? As society reaches a new peak of polarization, in tense moments we may find ourselves asking questions just to prove our own points correct, which Angie McArthur explains are called leading questions.

There is a more powerful method you can use: open questions, which are fueled by genuine curiosity, connection, and lead to a meaningful exchange. Chief among her tips, McArthur advises that this holiday season, you ask the questions you *don't* already know the answer to. Keeping these tips in mind, you might not merely survive the holidays—you might actually enjoy them. Angie McArthur is the co-author of Reconcilable Differences: Connecting in a Disconnected World.


One of the most powerful tools that we discuss in the book is open questions. And what we mean by that is, open questions are those questions that you possibly cannot know the answer to. And what this does is allow us to be authentic. Many of us are trained in asking leading questions, meaning: “Don’t you think that…?” or, “If you had the choice, wouldn’t you…?”

Those are leading you or prompting you into a specific answer, and people feel that right away—they feel “done to” in kind of a strange way. An open question is the opposite. It’s a question that, again, I couldn’t possibly know the answer to, so it would be like: “What was the most important Christmas or holiday you remember growing up, and why was that?”

It’s that genuine curiosity in which you’re asking another person questions, that they feel received, and they feel like there’s something there that you’re really questing. I mean it’s really interesting, the root of the word “question” is “quest”; I’m questing to learn more about you as a person. We can’t fake that, nor should we.

And this is so often forgotten, especially with those who are actually even close to us—family members—we forget this very innate ability we all have to be genuinely very curious about one another. It’s like the first time you fell in love or the first time you met someone: you’re really interested for the first time, you’re so curious about them and asking them open questions, like, “Why did you take that job that you did? I’m so curious to learn that.” It’s that type of questioning. Those are open questions.

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And never before has it been so difficult. We’re very polarized in so many ways right now. So being at the dinner table, what I would offer is first spending time, before entering into family events, to consider: what do you most want out of this?

And I think if you can answer that question truly from an authentic place it often is an answer of, “I want connection; I want to spend time with my dad who maybe he doesn’t have 20 more Christmases”—who knows what it is, but being very, very clear on your intention for that family gathering, that’s one.

The second is using inquiry styles to, again, create bridges. Having political discussions or having discussions about even sports teams can often lead to heated places, so remembering your intention in that moment and saying, "My intention was to come here and connect with my father, my intention was to connect with my mother-in-law. If I ask a bridging question in that moment, like, 'What is really important to you about the holidays? I’m really curious, what was it like for you as a child when you met with your parents?’” Trying to find anything that you can that will help people relate to experiences, relate to times of strong connection for them, that will increase the connection with our families.

And, again, I go back to those three cardinal rules: You’re not going to change another person, and you can’t make them love or like you, and you can’t necessarily even make them see your perspective, but you certainly can respect them and respect how you treat yourself and them in those moments. So moving to bridging questions at least allows for a place of connection during these really important holidays.

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