The art of having difficult conversations over the holiday season

26 November 2023

Siham Boda

Siham is a consultant at Conflict Dynamics, a member of the Conflict Dynamics panel of mediators, and is an accredited Commercial and Workplace mediator. She is an admitted Advocate of the High Court of South Africa and has practiced both locally and internationally, specializing in Constitutional and Public International Law. Siham served as a clerk both at the Constitutional Court of South Africa and the Land Claims Court. She practiced as a consultant in the corporate and public sector where she gained experience in dispute management and forensic investigations in a wide range of industries. Siham is an independent dispute resolution practitioner and has mediated many disputes and chaired disciplinary hearings drawing upon her legal, corporate, and investigative experience to deliver effective mediation processes. 

This article explores the art of having difficult conversations over the holiday season, providing practical tips on how to handle them confidently. It emphasises the importance of such conversations in addressing conflicts, fostering personal growth, improving relationships, and enhancing group dynamics.

Here are some quick tips for effectively navigating difficult conversations:

  • Consider whether to have the conversation: If having the conversation risks ending the relationship then there might be a different time or approach you could adopt.
  • Preparation Is Key: Before initiating a difficult conversation, thorough preparation is crucial. Define objectives, review the facts, feelings, and identity issues of everybody involved, and anticipate responses.
  • Choose the Right Time and Place: Timing and location matter. In-person conversations are preferred, and if online, ensure a suitable environment. Avoid high-pressure moments to manage emotions effectively.
  • Active Listening and Ask Open-Ended Questions: Listening is crucial in difficult conversations. Give full attention, be present, and try to understand the other person's perspective. Active listening defuses tension, and open-ended questions encourage productive dialogue.
  • Use "I" Statements: Frame statements using "I" to express feelings and thoughts without blaming. For example, say, "I feel concerned when you are driving over the holiday season because we know how many accidents happen at this time of the year," instead of "You always want to go out."
  • Stay Calm and Manage Emotions: Keep composure, take deep breaths, and avoid defensiveness. Request a break if necessary. Anticipate challenging responses to feedback.
  • Seek Common Ground: Find areas of agreement or shared goals to build collaboration and reduce defensiveness. Acknowledge the other person's perspective and validate their feelings.
  • Avoid Blame and Accusations: Focus on the issue at hand, not personal attacks. Stick to facts, avoid judgments or assumptions, and steer clear of blaming language.
  • Offer Constructive Feedback: Provide specific examples and suggest solutions when discussing performance or behaviour. Avoid general criticism and focus on actionable steps for improvement.
  • Set Clear Expectations: Clearly define expectations, agreements, and timelines to prevent misunderstandings and establish accountability moving forward.
  • Follow-up: After the conversation, check progress and offer support. This demonstrates a commitment to resolving the issue and reinforces the conversation's importance.

In conclusion, difficult conversations are inevitable over the holidays when family and friends are thrown together to be merry, but with the right approach, they can be opportunities for growth, understanding, and resolution. By applying these strategies, we all can better navigate challenging discussions. Handled correctly, difficult conversations can lead to improved relationships, enhanced group dynamics, and a happier holiday season. Embracing them as opportunities for positive change and healthier relationships with friends and family.