LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – Everybody enjoys the holiday meal table with friends and family gathered ‘round. Nobody enjoys, however, when an observation or remark turns into an argument.

Mental health professionals from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences answered questions about strategies a host or hostess could take to keep a holiday gathering from devolving into a shouting match.

Ashley Conrad and Ashely Gold are licensed clinical social workers at the UAMS Walker Family Clinic. Lauren Ruthven is an LCSW, the program manager for that clinic, which provides outpatient mental health services.

KARK: Is it fair for a host or hostess to say, “We’re not going to discuss politics” as guests are being invited or even as the table is being seated? Does that put politics on people’s minds and make a worst-case more likely?

Ashley Conrad: “Absolutely, setting a boundary as a host is fair. Good boundaries protect the relationship.”

KARK: Assuming people otherwise know how to conduct themselves socially, what gets people to argue about politics at what should otherwise be a pleasant dinner?

Ashley Gold: “There are vulnerability factors at play, such as alcohol, stress and high emotions when you are with family, which make it more easy to fall into the trap of conflict about politics. It is okay to point out when boundaries are not being respected and you, as the host/ hostess or family member, can identify a point that is crossing the line. It would be helpful to have conversation cards or conversation starters to identify other topics to talk about.”

KARK: Knowing what leads to arguments, what are some useful strategies to interrupt a conversation moving toward a social/political argument?

Lauren Ruthven: “It would be helpful in those times to say something like, ‘This is getting tense, let’s step back and change the subject,’ or ‘Let’s enjoy (eating, talking, shared activities), and, not discuss politics any further.”

KARK: Some talk about that one relative who seems to really want to get people arguing, who is willing to make his or her views known (“As long as [those people] are doing [that thing] things will keep getting worse.”) and does so knowing it will get people responding. What is a strategy to get out front of that person acting that way?

AC: “In those cases, you can either validate by saying something like, ‘You feel strongly about that,’ or ignore the poor behavior.”

KARK: What are we missing in wanting to keep things peaceful around the holiday meal table?

AG: “It is helpful to plan ahead. Consider how you as the host/ hostess are going to take care of yourself both before and after family time. We would recommend having relaxation techniques and exit strategies at the ready. Remember, you cannot please everyone, and we are capable to respond without reacting.”

KARK: Final thoughts?

LR: “It is helpful to inject humor and fun into tough situations; laughter softens!”
— Lauren Ruthven