5 Steps for Navigating Hot Button Topics this Holiday Season

by | Dec 19, 2019 | Self-Leadership, Strategies and Tips, Communication, Emotions

The holidays are right around the corner and I am working through my to-do list. Here is how I’m doing so far:

To do list for the holidaysDo you have similar items on your list? Before you conveniently skip right over that scary #4, hear me out. If you are like me, the holidays can stir up a lot of things: reflection, gratitude, cheer, spiked eggnog, and… anxiety. It’s the anticipation of those heated conversations about politics, religion, and social issues smack dab in the middle of a family get-to-together that have my stomach churning at 3 AM in the morning. We have all been there. Several drinks in, Uncle Joe sheds the few remaining social filters he has and an offensive monologue is blurted out as listener’s eyes bulge and mouths gasp. You know, the typical holiday gathering… or is this just my experience? 

Regardless of who you are or how you celebrate, we all find ourselves in conversations that rub us the wrong way. Whether they occur during the holidays, in class, or among close friends, our response to those situations can vary greatly from shock, silence, avoidance, confrontation, to outright attack. What do you do in these situations? What is the result? 

How we respond sends a message, impacts group dynamics, and upholds or challenges the established culture. In my family, avoidance is the ingrained go-to coping strategy and it doesn’t leave anyone feeling particularly good. As I polish my armor in hopes to make it through another holiday unscathed, I ask myself this question, “What can I do to promote curiosity, invite inquiry, foster dialogue, and create an inclusive space for diverse belief systems?” 

Attending the Creating Inclusive Environments workshop led by Michigan Ross Diversity and Inclusion Director, Taryn Petryk, provided me with useful strategies to achieve this goal. As the title suggests, the two-part training outlines helpful techniques to create an inclusive environment where we can engage in dialogue rather than polarizing debates.

Taryn shared the LARA/I tool, which outlines five steps that will help us tackle difficult conversations. It may be easier said than done, but if we want to see a positive shift in our conversations, it is well worth the courage to put it to practice. 

Here are the steps:

Step 1: Listen

Approach a difficult conversation with curiosity and empathy. Seek to understand the core beliefs and feelings of the person who is sharing. It’s hard to effectively listen to someone we disagree with, especially if it’s a hot button issue. It’s a skill we must develop through practice over time. Setting aside your own agenda, hearing what is being shared rather than thinking about what you are going to say next, and listening for the speaker’s feelings will increase your ability to effectively listen to a contrasting point of view. 

Step 2: Acknowledge

Do you have similar feelings? What statements can you relate to? Acknowledge any commonality you have with the other person. This step will be hard to do if you haven’t effectively completed step one. The Acknowledgement step requires empathy and reflection. You must be able to perceive and respond to the feelings of another person while remaining in touch with your own. “It sounds like you feel…”  is one great way to start. 

Step 3: Respond

Don’t avoid the topic being raised. Provide a response that conveys that the topic is worth addressing.

Responding in a way that assumes good intent is more likely to foster dialogue than a response that dismisses what the person is saying. If it is a statement you disagree with, you can start off by saying “I know you probably didn’t mean it this way, but it sounds like you are saying…

Step 4: Add Information

Your beliefs and experiences may differ from those being shared. This is your opportunity to provide a different perspective through your own lived experience or knowledge. You should strive to do this in a way that builds psychological safety within the group–whether amongst family or at work. To do so, you could try, “In my personal experience… which leads me to believe that…”

To learn more about psychological safety, how to create it, and its importance in the workplace, check out this Harvard Business Review article.

Step 5: And/Or Inquire

Our natural tendency may be to end our contribution to a conversation after step four. Our typical conversations may go something like this: I disagree with you, here is why, end of conversation. Yet, ending at step four would be a missed opportunity. Ask the other person for more information about their perspective as an alternative to adding information or as a complement. This demonstrates that you are willing to engage in an exchange of information, increasing the likelihood that the other person will respond in-kind. In an ideal world, the information exchanged will expand the perspectives of both parties. Being the first person to show vulnerability will increase your chances of success. This TED article outlining how to create a vulnerability loop– an essential building block in building trust– is a good first step in getting you there. 

It should be noted that there certainly are situations in which using LARA/I may not be the appropriate approach: for example, instances where mental or emotional harm may have been inflicted. In those situations, you may choose to distract, delay confrontation, or delegate intervention to someone else. 


I’m not claiming any of this is easy or doesn’t require hard work involving messy failed attempts. Successfully using LARA/I can be hard, especially at first. However, if our current approach leaves us anxious and awake at 3 AM anyhow, what do we have to lose in trying?