With the holiday season upon us in the midst of a pandemic, many people are wondering whether they should gather with family and friends, and if so, with whom – just those who are vaccinated or anyone regardless of vaccination status? This blog focuses on advice for navigating difficult conversations during the holiday season, which include whether to gather, people’s viewpoints on pandemic-related issues like vaccination, grief and loss, relationships, politics, etc.
To begin, with the COVID-19 Delta variant still dominant and the Omicron variant starting to spread, many wonder if it is even safe to gather at the holidays. Experts strongly urge people to get vaccinated to protect themselves and others, especially if planning to meet with other people. In this CNN report, experts offer the following advice to consider when deciding whether to gather:
- Assess your and others’ medical risk
- Determine the social dynamics of the situation (using past experience as a guide to how things might go this time)
- Plan the safest event
- Articulate expectations in advance (e.g., mask-wearing)
In all situations, experts suggest using love when communicating with others. Express care in the words chosen, use a kind tone of voice, and present non-confrontational body language.
The advice given by the Mayo Clinic last year still holds true today. A psychologist encouraged others to recognize that everyone’s values may differ so it is important to have potentially difficult conversations earlier rather than later. He shared that it is important to be open and honest with family members. It is also important to not turn decisions into a debate, instead keep statements short and simple and be empathetic to others.
Many experts recommend having open conversations early to avoid dread and to have a more peaceful gathering. In this TIME article, a psychiatrist shared that although these conversations can be “nerve-wracking,” they are essential. He suggests forgetting about trying to win an argument and instead finding common ground. By doing so, you can frame challenges using “we” language (e.g., “we want everyone to be safe”), which allows for more congenial conversations. Additionally, it is important to have a plan for both the discussion and what you want to happen at gatherings. Finally, don’t aim for perfect because mishaps will happen; instead, lovingly give each other a break.
Even though these conversations may be difficult, a medical doctor shares in Psychology Today how during hard conversations, people knit together bonds that sustain them and improve their relationship. She notes that we are all tired of these COVID conversations, but that they are essential so it is time to get better at them so we have less stress. It is important to recognize our desire to have connection with others even in light of our different beliefs about what is safe. She offers three keys to having a successful difficult conversation:
- Prioritize the relationship
- Present the problem rather than the solution
- Team up to solve both your concerns
Avoiding conversations is the worst possible strategy so it is important to have them early and as often as needed.
Additionally, Harvard Medical School published tips for communicating your own needs while still showing others that you care about them:
- Decide which mode of communication is best for the topic and loved one
- Have the conversation early
- Negotiate safety norms in advance and start with love when communicating your viewpoint
- Acknowledge other perspectives on personal risk
When providing advice for coping with COVID conversations around the holidays, NY Project Hope reminds people that each person has a choice in how to respond. For example, because everyone has different experiences, it is important not to take things too personally. If a conversation gets too uncomfortable, you can always steer the conversation in a different direction. It is important to be honest, especially when unsure of something. Finally, decide on how present you want to be because you can always leave a conversation.
Finally, one of the most difficult conversations someone can have is telling loved ones that they are not planning on meeting with them. Experts shared guidance for managing these difficult conversations with family members on the TODAY show. Recommendations include starting the conversation by acknowledging the collective feeling of “missing out.” Staying focused on other ways to create connection while still honoring boundaries is important to discuss. For example, maybe recommend meeting via Zoom or sending packages through the mail. And when setting important boundaries, it is important to start with “I feel” statements so that others know what emotions you are feeling followed by explaining why you feel that way and what you need from that person.
If individuals heed the advice presented here, it may be difficult, but it is likely that people will navigate difficult conversations in the best way possible.