How To Deal With Heated Dinner Table Debates At Christmas

No politics at the table, or should you go in all guns blazing? Three psychologists share their advice.

We’ve had a general election a few weeks before Christmas, so the gloves are bound to come off over the turkey main for some politically-divided families this year.

If you think there’s a high chance of an argument over the dinner table, don’t fret. “Recognise that Christmas can be very stressful and that being in confined spaces with family and all those relationship dynamics can be difficult for even the closest of families,” says Dr Anna Redding, a clinical psychologist and director of Avenue Therapies.

So what’s the best way to handle such situations – should you go in all guns blazing, diffuse the situation immediately or avoid touchy topics like the plague?

Here are four options for you, depending on how you feel on the day.

Option 1: Be Curious, But Know Your Escape Route

If you want to engage in the topic, be curious rather than defensive, says Dr Redding. She acknowledges this can be difficult if views from others are strongly held, or they say something against your values. But rather than getting riled up, calmly ask them: why do you believe or hold that point of view?

“Respond with clear statements and facts rather than emotions and opinions,” she suggests. “Try not to shout, or resort to name-calling, belittling, or telling them they are wrong, as this is likely to fuel the situation. And remember that you can’t always change other people’s viewpoints and that is okay.”

If you do engage, however, it’s wise to be one step ahead and have an escape plan in case things get out of hand. This could be heading to another room to play with younger family members, nipping to the loo for a breather, or calling a friend. Your mental health is the most important thing, after all.

Option 2: Shut The Argument Down

If you find yourself in the middle of a difficult discussion that doesn’t show any signs of slowing down, simply state that the conversation is a difficult one and perhaps not one for the dinner table.

This can sometimes call a halt to things, says Dr Redding.

Option 3: Decide To Lose

Ahead of your family get-together, it’s wise to think carefully about what’s most important to you in the situation, should a heated discussion arise. “If the most important thing is the family or relationships, holding back or finding the middle ground in that moment [of an argument] is more important than trying to ‘win’,” says Redding.

Dr Simon Stuart, a clinical psychologist, says when it comes to dealing with Christmas dinner discussions, he sides with George Orwell: “The quickest way to end a war is to lose it.”

“In this context, where it really doesn’t matter a jot, see what it’s like to lose,” he advises. “Be prepared to walk away.”

Christmas is stressful enough without clinging to the idea that we have to win every discussion, he says. “Instead, might we hold that frustration as lightly as possible and ask ourselves: is there another, more enjoyable conversation we could be having instead?”

Option 4: Avoid Arguing Completely

Dr Neil Lamont, a chartered practitioner psychologist, thinks that by the time Christmas comes, many of us will be experiencing political fatigue (if we aren’t already) – so there may be a desire to avoid the topic completely.

“This is a very divided country at the moment with significant generational divides,” he says. “My advice is to avoid the big topics of the day, it’s a time for togetherness and harmony, so keep things light and fun. Traditional dinner party games can be a good tension diffuser.”

Keeping the group occupied is a good way to swerve heated discussions entirely, agrees Dr Redding. “Get people engaged in games, a quiz, playing with new toys, go for a walk or watch a fun movie together,” she adds.