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Pandemic, election, unrest: How to navigate, diffuse difficult holiday dinner conversations

People are feeling isolated and just worn out. Now, the holidays and the end of the year are upon us.

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — It's been a tense, tiring and stressful year. And it's not over yet.

Social justice and racial equality have filled conversations for much of the year, helping to define a year that has seen a contentious presidential election and an ongoing pandemic.

People are feeling isolated and just worn out. Now, the holidays and the end of 2020 are upon us.

So, how do you bring everyone together safely and in a way that doesn't cause more division? How can we avoid arguments at the holiday dinner table or diffuse them?

Dr. Saundra Maass-Robinson, a psychiatrist in Atlanta, says before you speak know this:

"You're not going to change anybody's opinion," she said.

Maass-Robinson also suggests considering your own expectations for others at your holiday gatherings -- both virtual and in-person. 

"Are these appropriate expectations? Or are these people you always have conflict with?" she said. "Your Uncle Joe starts drinking too much; do you think this year he won't?"

Experts like Maass-Robinson say it's likely this year people might be more on edge. 

"People's tolerance and frustration; their irritability -- everything that this pandemic and the isolation has created in us does make each of us less tolerant," she said.

Licensed professional counselor Samantha Speed says we're all going through a collective type of trauma -- a combination of the coronavirus pandemic and social and political issues for most of the year. She says during the holidays, you should shift the focus to what you and others have in common, rather than what you may disagree on.

"I think a lot of times when we are on opposite ends of the spectrum, we have that tendency to push ourselves even further apart by saying I'm over here and you're over here," she said. "But again what that does is create more tension."

After the 2016 election, our sister station KPNX spoke to a local hostage negotiator about how to navigate arguments at the holiday dinner table. Her advice still rings true today.

Here are a few tips from someone who made a living as a diffuser of tense situations.

  • Actively listen
  • Sit strategically
  • Don't ever say "calm down"
  • Speak softly
  • Change the subject

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