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Five tips on talking politics with family without falling out – from a conflict resolution expert

Four fingers with angry faces and arms drawn on them to look like two teams of two shouting at each other
There are plenty of controversial topics on the table this year. Victoria 1/Shutterstock

Family gatherings can be difficult, especially when politics enters the conversation. If you feel anxious about discussing divisive issues and falling out with people you love, you are not alone.

The war between Israel and Gaza, climate change, culture wars, immigration, LGBTQ+ issues and upcoming elections in the US and UK are all likely to be on the table for discussion and disagreement this holiday season.

I’m an expert in conflict resolution, and my work can help you find ways of discussing these contentious issues without damaging your relationships.

Safe spaces and brave spaces

You may have heard of “safe spaces” at universities or workplaces, where discussion is intended to be free of bias, criticism and conflict. These have become controversial in some circles due to concerns that they stifle free speech.

I suggest instead that we turn our family gatherings into “brave spaces”, where discussion of controversial issues is welcomed and respectful. The concept of brave spaces was proposed by education researchers Brian Arao and Kristi Clemens in 2013 as an approach to discussing diversity in educational settings.

How do we create these spaces? This was the central question in a recent research project conducted with my colleagues Ulrich Schmiedel (University of Edinburgh) and Ryszard Bobrowicz (Lund University). We are part of a research team working with A World of Neighbours, an interfaith group supporting refugees and migrants throughout Europe.

We held focus groups with members of the group about how to discuss controversial issues in a productive way. We then compared our findings with other research in this area to come up with a set of guidelines on creating brave spaces.

Conversations can quickly turn into arguments. But they can also be opportunities to build trust, challenge the biases, stereotypes and prejudices that we hold, and to repair and deepen relationships. Instead of shying away from difficult topics, here are some guidelines to keep in mind as you discuss them.

1. Don’t assume you are right

It may seem odd to turn to a theoretical physicist for advice on conflict resolution, but the late David Bohm’s understanding of dialogue is incredibly helpful in creating brave spaces. Bohm argued that we should not enter conversations thinking that we are definitely right about everything, aiming to convince the other that they are wrong and need to change their mind.

Instead, see these conversations as opportunities to can gain new insights of each other’s convictions, beliefs, experiences and opinions. Through dialogue, you develop a deeper understanding of not only the other person but also of yourself.

2. Treat controversy – and each other – with respect

Recognise and appreciate that opposing opinions and controversy are important, legitimate parts of the complexity of the issues you are talking about.

You must respect your conversation partner for who they are and what they bring to the conversation. You can show respect through listening actively, being curious and politely asking clarifying questions.

Be aware of how your own opinions and previous experiences with family members affect what you are hearing and how you are reacting.


Read more: How to be a good listener - and how to know when you're doing it right


3. Own your intentions

When you talk about controversial issues, you must commit to not hurting the other person intentionally. However, words and actions can still have unintentional negative effects on the other person’s wellbeing.

If this happens, you must take responsibility and think carefully about how to react. This may mean acknowledging that the other person has been hurt and offering them emotional support.

A young woman seated at a dinner table looks unhappy, resting her head on her fist, as the man seated next to her speaks while gesturing with both of his hands
In brave spaces, people feel empowered and comfortable sharing their opinions. Prostock-studio/Shutterstock

4. Challenge and be challenged

In a brave space, you must be willing to momentarily leave your comfort zone and step into a potentially uncomfortable space. Your opinions may be actively challenged while opposing points of views are explored.

You must also recognise that participation in these challenging conversations is voluntary. Everyone should have the right not to participate, to pause or to leave the conversation at any time.

5. Do not insult or threaten each other

No matter the circumstances, you should not tolerate shouting and insulting, or threatening language or behaviour. It might be hurtful to participate in these conversations – sharing personal information and opinions can leave you feeling vulnerable. But this is often a price worth paying for deepening conversations and strengthening relationships.

Finally, no matter how difficult these conversations become, remember the importance of the relationships with the people you are speaking to. Even if you disagree on a topic, you can still show compassion for each other, and have a happy and loving time together.

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