Keys for Difficult Family Discussions

Talking about difficult topics with family members can be tricky. It can even pull you back into some old habits or feelings. As we near the holiday season, many of us might be feeling anxious about certain conversations coming up and how we can handle them.

What makes certain topics hard to talk about is the emotion behind them or the history between family members. Feelings can be hard to express, and history creates assumptions and patterns of interpretation. So, most simply, the best way to approach potentially difficult topics is to allow for feelings, and minimize assumptions. 

Here are some concrete tips for handling uncomfortable topics with family members:

  1. First, approach from the perspective that the goal of the conversation is understanding, not to “win” or to “be right.” Trying to win an argument doesn’t open a conversation, it shuts it down. Consider your purpose to be to understand the other person or their views more deeply. You might even state this goal, or ask whether that can be both of your aims in having the conversation.
  2. Identify the problem, making sure the problem isn’t you or the other person – If you think the problem is the other person or their belief, you are setting yourself up to offend and separate, not to relate. So instead of thinking “the problem is you’re wrong because your ideas are old-fashioned,” the problem might be “we have different about what’s most important here.” Sometimes this takes away the need for an argument at all, because it’s okay to have different ideas or priorities! If the problem is “we need to figure out a way to deal with [something] together,” then you’ve given yourself a resolvable problem you can work together on.
  3. Be conscious of what you need to do to self-soothe and when you need to do it – separate from the conversation, think through what feelings are difficult for you and what helps you to cope with them, whether that is deep breathing, taking a break or a walk, grounding exercises, etc. Practice these when you start to feel emotions escalating during the conversation. It’s okay to take a break when you need to, if it helps you to be able to care for your emotions and then come back and focus.
  4. Take an active listening stance when the other person is talking – listen to understand, not to respond. This means staying present and in the conversation, and tuning in to what the other person is saying. 
  5. When you’re talking, use “I” statements – state what you think, feel, etc. but don’t state assumptions about what the other person thinks or feels. 
  6. Respond with understanding, rather than arguing. Reflect back what you heard the other person say. Validate their experience, remembering that validating doesn’t mean you agree. It means that you see their perspective. 
  7. Know when to call it – Remembering that the goal is understanding, you might not solve anything; but if you have a greater understanding of the other person, the conversation has been a success. Also, if either person goes into insulting or stonewalling, then you’re no longer working toward understanding and it’s okay to end the conversation. If you’ve been able to come to a greater understanding with the other person, then end by expressing your gratitude or positive feedback about how the conversation went. If it didn’t end on a note of understanding, then take time to self-soothe and give extra care to your emotions. Don’t forget to give yourself credit for trying this new approach!


Blog by: Jessie Everts, PhD LMFT
Photo by:
Ben Maxwell from Pexels


John Gottman & Julie Schwartz Gottman (2018), Eight Dates: Essential conversations, New York: Workman Publishing.
Diana Mercer (2021), The 8 Keys to Resolving Family Conflict,