Discovering Strategies for Civil Family Conversations

5 min read
August de Richelieu/Pexels

Source: August de Richelieu/Pexels

Coauthored by Dr. Clark Olson, Arizona State University

“Did Dad really say that at the Thanksgiving table?”

As we approach the holidays, caregiving for family members, family reunions, Sunday dinners, and other formal and informal family interactions, we hope to find acceptance of who we are and what we believe and caring and civility in family communication.

However, strong and loud disagreement can quickly erupt over different beliefs, values, and life choices at places such as the Thanksgiving dinner table. You might hear such phrases as,

  • “I cannot understand how you can possibly believe…”
  • “That is just ridiculous to support…”
  • “You could not be more wrong.”

Things can quickly spiral out of control and fracture families. Sometimes, differences in beliefs and values are longstanding and predictable, and other times, differences catch us by surprise.

Left unchecked, relationship threats can get to the point that family members dread getting together, talking via phone or chat, or interacting on social media. Family members can become estranged from one another. Civil communication can be a big challenge for families, as we see incivility throughout our personal and community connections.

Though we seek and hope for families predicated on love, communication can often become the most uncivil with a family.

Civility and Incivility

What do we mean when we talk about civil communication? Clark Olson and coauthors define civility as,

Authentically sharing one’s feelings and basis for making value judgments on socially important issues. It is honestly providing insights into one’s moral code in a setting of respectfulness (Genette et al., 2018).

Civility involves:

  • Listening for understanding, not judgment
  • Being honest
  • Being multipresent (using your knowledge of the past, awareness of the relationship today, and how today’s communication may impact the future)
  • Setting aside your own need to be right
  • Willing to live with disagreement within your family

In short, civility shows respect for your identity, beliefs, and needs “without degrading someone else’s in the process” (Spath & Dahnke, 2017). “Agreeing to disagree” is not a productive communication strategy. While it is rare that family members will always agree, learning to handle disagreement and difference is critical for healthy, or at least workable, family relationships.

In one family, a granddaughter brought her live-in boyfriend to Thanksgiving. Her grandparents disapproved of living together before marriage, and despite the couple’s upcoming spring wedding, they were upset the couple was sharing a bedroom. All generations felt the tension at the table, and ordinarily, happy conversations were replaced with uncomfortable silence and whispered critical side conversations.

Signs of Incivility

It is essential to recognize characteristics of incivility in our families to know when it is happening. Incivility rears its head when family members find themselves instantly disagreeing over issues (often the same issues over and over) and members believing they can change another’s mind or values, which is rarely the case.

Signs of incivil communication include increasingly loud interruptions and sighs. Family members will make absolute statements, such as “You always” or “You never believe me.” Family members may engage in sarcasm, insults, or harmful gossip.

On the other hand, incivility can also result in silencing some or all family members or family members tuning each other out or withdrawing from conversations. Family members may avoid gatherings or not invite certain family members to events. Family members may become estranged from part or all members of the family.

Family Dynamics Essential Reads

Civility does not just happen in families without intention and effort. Civility must be learned and practiced. Civil listening and speaking involves commitment and action:

  • Having the courage and caring to understand and be understood
  • Committing to creating mutual understanding
  • Trusting and respecting the listening process without interrupting and arguing
  • Withholding judgment
  • Accepting that there are times when family members will disagree

Communication Strategies for Family Civility

Accepting that family members may hold beliefs and values different from yours is essential. Understand there are gradations of beliefs with varying degrees of intensity.

What is a “6” in strength of importance for one person may be a “10” to another person. Try and balance discussions so everyone can fully explain their position.

Actions for when the family is together:

  • Listen carefully before sharing your opinion
  • Indicate you are listening nonverbally (direct eye contact, head nods, verbal affirmations such as “uh huh” or “got it”)
  • Perception-check what you heard, “So what you are saying is…”
  • Ask questions to understand what leads others to their beliefs (“Tell me more about how you came to believe this?” or “Help me to understand your perspective”)
  • Put your judgments aside and listen carefully to why the other person holds such strong beliefs
  • Recognize and react to triggers that can escalate incivil communication (e.g., too much alcohol consumption, the appearance of topics that trigger incivility)

“Did Dad really say that at the dinner table?”

Of course, in the end, you must understand your bottom line and options when differences might be harmful, and action must be taken.

For example, one sister would not bring her children to her brother’s home, where she believed there were drugs and guns in the house. A gay son chose to spend the holidays with friends who were accepting of who he was.

In the end, families will benefit when they can plan options ahead of time for the best possible outcome. Families need to commit to civil communication and successfully navigate their differences.

Family members’ willingness to understand and accept differences will help them have the best chance to weather these challenges in the present and future.

Communication researcher Clark Olson is a faculty member in human communication at Arizona State University.

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