"AI" for the Holidays

"AI" for the Holidays

The holidays can be a great time to catch up with family.  But for many people, they have one or two members of the family they just can’t see eye to eye with.  Mediators have techniques that can help in just these circumstances.  By creating a greater sense of understanding these techniques can make your next holiday get together a little more merry.

By Ehsan Ali and Alnoor Maherali

Whether holiday plans include going home or reaching out to family and loved ones via phone or video calls, the holidays can be a wonderful chance to reconnect and reaffirm bonds with those closest to us.  This time can also be a source of anxiety for those who expect to have unpleasant interactions with members of their families with whom they don’t see eye to eye.  Whether your family serves these agreements cold (in the form of awkward silences) or hot (with arguments at the dining room table) mediators have techniques that can improve your holiday experience. 

We’ve all been there. Making holiday plans, getting excited to see family members and close friends, looking forward to catching up about where they’ve been and what they’ve been doing over the last year. And then we think of that one disruptive family member – an uncle, a niece or nephew, a sister-in-law, a grandparent, a cousin.  Whoever they are, the thought of being forced to speak with this person and them upending our warm and cozy vision of the idyllic holiday season introduces a sense of dread.  Some manage this feeling by simply not thinking about it – leaving it for their future selves to deal with the situation when it happens.  Others plan and structure their schedules to minimize engagement. 

While these coping mechanisms offer short-term relief, the dreaded dinner-table argument can be unavoidable for many.  But mediators have a technique that can be helpful in just these circumstances.  And better yet, you can use them without the time or training that mediators put into honing their craft.  Because this approach is not a method but an attitude – a way to listen and engage while limiting escalation of  disagreements. 

The approach is called Appreciative Inquiry – which may not be what you think.  You don’t have to appreciate or agree with the other person’s opinion.  The basic theory of appreciative inquiry is to listen with the purpose of understanding where the other person is coming from.  What are they basing their decisions and opinions on?  Do they have any firsthand experience in the matter?  What moves them and persuades them?  Instead of immediately throwing counterarguments back to the person as is usually our first instinct as humans – an appreciative inquirer asks follow-up questions.  How can a technique so simple help in conflicts that have festered for years? 

Research and anecdotal experience show that facts can fall flat in persuading those who are entrenched in their position.  Because when presented with a counterargument, the tendency is to anchor oneself in one’s existing position rather than consider a new perspective.   But when one can understand another person’s worldview, the how of their decision-making rather than the decision itself, the situation can become clearer or at least easier to engage with.  When you have the same argument with your uncle/niece/cousin at the dinner table, it can be tempting to write-off their position to them merely being undereducated or misinformed on a topic.  But that strategy locks you into having the argument again and again. 

Instead, see if you can extract the basis for how this friend or family member has come to their point of view.  Indeed, it may be that no one has asked them where the opinion came from.  They may pause, consider for a moment, and genuinely tell you, “I don’t know.”  That is a moment of self-reflection that an argument is very unlikely to generate.  Or they may share with you the source or personal experience that colored their perspective. Whatever you learn, appreciative inquiry can give you the basis to better understand where this family member is coming from and that can change the tenor of the conversation.  Or, you may still find their views abhorrent.  That’s okay too.  Appreciative inquiry, again, does not require you to sympathize or agree with any part of what you hear.  It only asks you to seek to clarify what the other person is saying. 

Sometimes, appreciative inquiry can help turn what has been a persistent argument into a discussion – an exchange of the rationales for the positions on an issue.  Whether you choose to continue the conversation or not will be entirely in your hands.  But at the very least – as an appreciative inquirer you have the option of taking the conversation to a more productive place and perhaps won’t dread the interaction the next time.

This holiday season, more than most, could use a little more harmony. And while many people find conflict and disagreements to be uncomfortable or even destructive, when handled correctly they can be a pathway to greater understanding.  Mediation, and the tools mediators use, can work wonders for creating a safe and respectful space for difficult conversations to take place. Disputes can be difficult, but dispute resolution doesn’t have to be. We would love to help. Happy Holidays from Venn Mediation and see you in 2021!

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