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Conflict is natural, but don’t let it interrupt the holidays

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- The table is set, the turkey is finally the perfect shade of crispy golden-brown and the family is gathered in the warmth of another Thanksgiving. But all is not as it seems.

Emily Holth, founder and owner of Sustainable Solution Services in her office Tuesday afternoon in Grand Forks, N.D. Holth says family conflict can be mediated through attentive listening and agreeing to disagree. (Jesse Trelstad/Grand Forks Herald)
Emily Holth, founder and owner of Sustainable Solution Services in her office Tuesday afternoon, Nov. 22, 2016, in Grand Forks, N.D. (Jesse Trelstad/Forum News Service)

GRAND FORKS, N.D. - The table is set, the turkey is finally the perfect shade of crispy golden-brown and the family is gathered in the warmth of another Thanksgiving. But all is not as it seems.

Whether it's due to a tumultuous political climate, a football rivalry or even some kind of weird divide between the sugar beet growers and corn planters, there's tension brewing beneath the idyllic holiday surface.

You get the sense that conflict could bust out the flying mashed potatoes at any moment. What do you do?

Emily Holth, founder and owner of the Sustainable Solution Services conflict resolution center in Grand Forks, recommends a simple solution that's oftentimes anything but.

"You have to really listen," she said, "not to fight back or even to respond, but to listen openly and really understand what a family member or friend is saying. It's way easier said than done though, because it's tough to listen when you disagree with what somebody's saying."

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Holth said she often hears from people seeking to resolve long-standing issues before the holiday season.

"They think along the lines of, 'Everyone will be over, I want it all to be done so we can be together and it's not so contentious,'" Holth said. "I get some of the post-holiday stuff, too, but if it's after the holidays, they bring it up as part of the issue. They'll say, 'We just had Christmas dinner, and it was really tough.' It becomes part of a conflict that's been going on for a long time."

Conflict isn't necessarily a bad thing, Holth said. When handled in a constructive manner, conflict can lead to meaningful change. On the flip side, Holth said a mishandled conflict quickly can snowball into an angry situation.

Elise Chambers, program director at the Minneapolis Conflict Resolution Center, said the center coaches mediators to help people avoid generalities when discussing contentious topics.

"It's kind of counterintuitive," Chambers said. "You think if you keep it general, it'll be civilized, but that's actually the exact opposite."

Personalizing large-scale issues such as national politics can help "take the sting" out of disagreement, Chambers said. She described the pattern of conversation as a chain - there's the behavior or event, its impact on the individual, and what they'd like to see in the future instead.

Beyond the conversation itself, Chambers said it's important to remember that "someone has to be the grown-up."

"If you don't want the conversation that's happening, it's up to you to take care of yourself and say you don't want to have this conversation," she said. "We need to learn to be assertive about that."

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Families don't need to always see eye to eye on every issue, Chambers said. Rather than getting hung up on trying to reach a consensus, she recommends taking stock of your relationships with the people at the holiday table, remembering why you love and care about them, and simply agreeing to disagree for the sake of enjoying time spent together.

Ground rules

For those who do get a kick out of lively debate, Chambers suggested establishing ground rules to set the parameters of what can be discussed. Working with clear limits makes contentious discussion "feel more like an intellectual exercise" while making it less personal, she said.

The dynamics of family conflict can be complex given the deep histories and long-term futures shared by members of the group. Chambers said the intertwined nature of family bonds can set an unrealistic pressure to agree for the sake of having each other's backs; she suggested foregoing that impulse and replacing it with authentic expression.

"What if we all just try being ourselves," Chambers said. "Speak from your heart, don't quote the pundits. It's your family, they love you - if you say what's real for you, that makes it a different conversation."

Emily Holth, founder and owner of Sustainable Solution Services in Grand Forks, says family conflict can be mediated through attentive listening and agreeing to disagree. (Jesse Trelstad/Grand Forks Herald)
Emily Holth, founder and owner of Sustainable Solution Services in her office Tuesday afternoon, Nov. 22, 2016, in Grand Forks, N.D. (Jesse Trelstad/Forum News Service)

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