Prof. Michele Williams (UI photo)

The holidays are a time for families to come together, but friction can sometimes develop that will ruin the festive atmosphere if the wrong conversational subjects are broached.

University of Iowa professor and psychologist Michele Williams says the old adage about not discussing politics and religion holds true, but there are other topics to avoid, too. She suggests using a technique called LARA, which stands for Listen, Affirm, Respond and Ask questions.

“When someone says something that triggers you emotionally, you tend to jump in and you fight back, you might be defensive,” Williams says. “If you slow down, with methods from dialogue like LARA, it helps you.”

You may want to skip chatting with your aunt or uncle about things like inflation, gasoline prices or even vaccines, as they can be hot-button issues. Williams says we tend to talk too much and listen too little, so she suggests striving to have a dialogue, not a debate.

“Often, you’ve probably seen this, too, you see an argument and both people seem to be saying the same thing because they’re not actually listening to the other side,” Williams says. “They’re responding so quickly that they never know that there are points where they agree and information that could improve both of their thinking.”

Subjects that are not usually prone to prompt conflict include food, sports, art, or even just the kids. Williams says to try and keep positive feelings front and center during holiday gatherings.

“You could do that by having pictures, mementos, wear a piece of jewelry that the other person had given you as a child, things around you that are kind of touchstones,” she says, “to remember that this conversation is with someone you love and the reason you’re coming together as a family is to really celebrate those relationships.”

Williams is a UI professor of management and entrepreneurship in the Tippie College of Business and she’s a psychologist who specializes in management communications and relationships.

Radio Iowa