6 Things To Say To Diffuse The Inevitable Family Argument Over The Holidays

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No matter how well your family gets along most of the year, the holidays are a particularly fertile time for a family argument. Put a lot of family members together in a small space for an extended period, add sugar and boredom, and submerged feuds, irritation and political disagreements are nearly guaranteed flare. It's extremely common and not the end of the world — but if your holiday gatherings inevitably end up in screaming matches, it's worth having a few things to say to diffuse an argument in your back pocket.

The term for defusing an argument among psychologists is "de-escalating conflict." While it's helpful to have these techniques in your arsenal, de-escalation isn't magic. It doesn't mean the fight comes to a screaming halt, or that everybody becomes best friends again; some disagreements are so intense that there's no real way to heal them, and often it's a good idea to get things out into the open. However, certain phrases and approaches can help take things down a notch, from all out war to more civil disagreements. If a clash is inevitable, it's wise to have a few tricks up your sleeve to lower the volume and inch closer to a resolution. The fights may range from the trivial — "Why does the stuffing taste like sawdust?" — to the more intense, personal arguments that seem to reoccur every few seasons, but each of these techniques can help calm them down. Here are a few things experts suggest saying to diffuse a family argument.


"What I Hear You Saying Is X"

"Repeating back what someone has told you (ideally in your own phrasing) is one of the best ways there is to keep a conversation from turning hostile," business writer Miranda Zetlin wrote for Inc. "You've just made it clear that you care about the other person's viewpoint and want to show you understand it," even if you don't agree with it.

Using this phrase is not a chance to explain their words back to them; it's a chance to show that you've heard their argument and that if you disagree with it, it's not because of a lack of understanding. Many disagreements begin as a result of not feeling understood, so making this point can help diffuse that particular tension.


"What Would You Like From This Argument?"

Reading it back, saying this sounds volatile or even sarcastic — but it's all in the delivery. Asking what somebody wants out of an argument is very different to demanding to know what they want once and for all. Lifehacker explains that asking "what they want from the argument" can uncover underlying issues; if they're picking a fight because they're actually unhappy you didn't bring home a date, or want you to admit that you've gained too much weight, at least they can be clear about it. Take care with tone when you deliver this, and maybe don't deploy it on your passive-aggressive parent, but this saying can help take the argument from the nitty-gritty to the big picture.


"It's Natural That We See This Issue Differently"

Conflict de-escalation in the workplace can offer several tips for smoothing things over at home. Getting into heated discussions? The Harvard Business Review suggests saying things that imply that "you value the other person and her perspectives." Even if you think what's being said is daft, you can still be the person who acts like an adult.

HBR suggest saying things like "Thanks for raising this issue," "I think it took guts to put that on the table," and what I view as a killer statement: “You come at this from a very different perspective than I do, so it’s natural that we see it differently.” Sometimes perspectives just can't be reconciled, but agreeing to disagree can be hard. Instead, thanking them for bringing it up is a kind way to suggest you'd like to leave it at that.


"It Was Not My Intention, But I Can Understand Why You Feel That Way"

This is a good one for arguments that arise from hurt feelings. Mom feeling neglected that you only visit at Christmas? Brother upset that you don't want to play video games like you did when you were 12? Lisa Firestone at Psychology Today explains that it's helpful to empathize and understand where they're coming from, even if it's not what you were going for. "It seems like this makes you feel X. I'm really sorry about that. It is not my intention to do X" is a helpful formulation. Compassion doesn't cost anything, even if you think the other person is being ridiculous for feeling hurt in this situation.


"Shall We Take Five And Come Back To This?"

This is not a conflict-avoidance technique; it's you allowing everybody to calm down before having a more rational discussion, when they're at the point of throwing the turkey at one another (or you). This is a particularly good way to deal with passive-aggressive people, says Berkeley's Greater Good Institute. "Attempting to begin a dialogue when one or both of you are in a very negative headspace will cause the person who behaves passive-aggressively to shut down or to escalate the situation," they explain. "Take a minute to chill out and calm down before approaching each other and the issue."



This isn't just saying something random to derail the situation (though, depending on your family's sense of humor, that might work too); it's a code word. Relate suggests pre-agreeing on a family word to say when things are escalating. "Try to find a code word that either of you (or the children) can say out loud when an argument is getting out of hand," they say. "This often diffuses the tension, and sends the message that whatever the argument is about, it will not be resolved in that moment. Each family could have a code word that is only known to them." Sounds ludicrous, but it's a technique to get people to settle for a minute, even if the argument flares up again when they're calmer. No, it doesn't have to be pineapple.


The key to getting people onto your side in a serious family argument, or at least getting them to listen, is to "communicate your views in terms of their highest values," according to NPR. That means framing what you're saying in terms of what they want and prioritize: "Help them fulfill what they desire and they in turn will soften their stance and turn around to assist with what you desire." If the argument isn't getting anywhere, though, shout "Pineapple!" and go off and have some eggnog. Your family will be still there when you get back.