What does ‘staying safe’ this holiday season mean to you?

Sourav Sengupta standing in front of a bookcase.

Sengupta recommends starting difficult conversations about how, or if, to get together this holiday season with a statement about how much you care for the other person. 

UB psychiatrist advises how to sensitively navigate differences with loved ones as the holidays approach

Release Date: November 23, 2020

“It’s important to minimize judgmental language and to try hard to stick with facts rather than opinion. ”
Sourav Sengupta, MD, Assistant professor, Department of Psychiatry
Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences

BUFFALO, N.Y. – Holiday dinner conversations sometimes erupt in heated discussions when friends and relatives with opposing political views get together. This year, whether or not to even host the dinner may be a volatile topic all by itself.

There is a way to sensitively navigate these conversations about whether and how to celebrate Thanksgiving and other holiday rituals during the pandemic, says Sourav Sengupta, MD, assistant professor of psychiatry and pediatrics in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at the University at Buffalo.

When broaching the subject, begin with a caring statement, he says. “Start with something like ‘You know I love you…’ or ‘You know how important you are to me and how much I enjoy spending time with you...’”

Sengupta adds that it’s important to use “I” statements to establish how you are feeling. Sentences like “I'm feeling really stressed about...” or “I've been worrying about spending time in-person...” are honest, neutral statements.

“It’s important to minimize judgmental language and to try hard to stick with facts rather than opinion,” he says. “Saying things like, ‘I'm seeing the case numbers in our community continuing to rise’ or ‘School just transitioned fully to remote instruction’ can keep the focus on the facts of what’s happening in the community.”

Once the conversation turns to personal feelings, Sengupta suggests asking questions to fully understand the other person’s perspective. “Ask how they are understanding the situation. Statements like ‘It seems like we might be seeing things differently, how are you putting all this together?’ can help you find out where they are coming from.

“Try to restate their position without adding your own opinion or judgement to ensure they know you've heard and understood them,” he adds. “And check to see if they understood your perspective.”

He notes that a good strategy to work toward is to agree on goals and commit to compromise if and when possible. That might involve saying something like ‘It sounds like we both want to be able to stay connected, but feel differently about how best to stay safe. What if we could figure out another way to….?’

“Close with intimacy,” he adds. “Acknowledge this is a difficult time. If you weren't able to reach compromise, let them know you can't wait to reconnect when the public health situation improves. Let them know again that you care and you appreciate them.”

For more in-depth information about communicating about difficult issues, he suggests “Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High” by Kerry Patterson et al.

“Conflict is often anticipated,” Sengupta concludes, “but we can often diffuse things by demonstrating genuine interest in what our friends and loved ones are actually thinking and feeling.”

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