By Suni Jo Roberts
Along with snowstorms that are still met with welcome anticipation and advertisements popping up on every screen you own, the month of December usually involves gathering with family and friends to celebrate the holidays. If you are going home already knowing you have differences in opinions with your family members on topics like politics, religion and money matters it can be hard to know what to talk about. Three Washtenaw Community College communication faculty members give insight on how to best navigate uncomfortable situations and focus on connecting with those around us.
Claire Sparklin, a professional faculty member at WCC, first encourages students to take care of themselves while attending get togethers.
“We all have different levels of interaction needs,” said Claire Sparklin, a professional faculty member at WCC. “Some us have very high levels of interaction needs where we need conversation, we need to be playing games around the kitchen table . . . then others need to take breaks.”
Sparklin says students can take care of themselves while planning to be home for the holidays by scheduling appointments to get out and do something each day or do things they like such as go to the movies or play video games. Students can take care of themselves while at a gathering by focusing on their emotional responses and acting on negative conversations that are going in a heated direction.
“If a topic comes up and you start to feel the edge of an emotional response like anxiety or anger . . . really take note and be aware, because those first early signs within ourselves usually provide the opportunity to steer the conversation,” said Sparklin. “Or if you are not actively engaged in the conversation you can pop up and start a conversation with somebody else or move into another room where something else is going on.”
Jennifer Garcia, a professional faculty member at WCC, looks at the flipside of judging an intense situation by looking at the behavior of others.
“If it does get to a point where it gets a bit heated, ways in which you can tell is maybe people begin to speak a lot more quickly or raise their voice,” said Garcia. “Just going into a situation with an open mind and listening to someone would easily diffuse a somewhat hostile type of situation because if one person is more calm the other person would feed off of those vibes from the person.”
Along with controversial topics arising students can sometimes be on the receiving end of personal questions from well meaning family members about their relationship status, job prospects or general life direction.
Beth Kane, a faculty member at WCC, advises students to have a few phrases ready to go, to answer those questions if a student already knows they don’t want to talk about those things.
“Having phrases like ‘working on it’ or ‘oh, you’ll be the first to know’ or ‘that’s interesting, pass the potatoes’ and just go into a new topic,” said Kane. “Those are things you should have ready to go if you don’t feel like getting into it.”
Another way to reframe these questions, according to Sparklin, is to look at it as an attempt to reach out and build on an existing relationship.
“Try your best to not see questions that appear to pry into your life as an invasion but rather an attempt to restore or reinforce the relationship that you have,” said Sparklin.
If students know there is a gap in opinions amongst family members they can focus, instead, on what connects them with each other and bring up topics that give them a sense of connection.
Kane and Garcia say that a shared history and laughter help us feel connected with one another.
“When you laugh with somebody it solidifies cohesion,” said Garcia. “It really solidifies that bond, so sharing laughter, talking about funny anecdotes or maybe previous holidays maybe if a funny thing occurred during a previous holiday get together.”
Kane suggests topics that people have a shared experience of like pop stars that have died in the past year.
“It’s interesting to talk about favorite performers that are no longer with us in the last year,” said Kane. “People usually have a lot to say about that. You can talk about Prince, or Tom Petty or David Bowie, or anybody famous like that who has passed who were really in the public eye and people seem to have a shared experience having watched them or enjoyed their performances.”
Sparklin adds a final tip on conversations that can be supportive of relationships growing in a meaningful way.
“I think one of the biggest ways we can get conversation going and help relationships continue in a positive direction by asking open ended questions of people and being a good listener,” said Sparklin. “Our friends and our family, they usually like to talk about themselves so the more questions we can pose that support them in sharing their story. At the same time if we get the opportunity to do the speaking we want to make sure we are putting details with our experiences so we are telling them a good story. Every human being is a good story teller. You might not believe it, but you are.”