Average read time: 4 minutes

4 ways to hold courageous conversations

As the holidays approach and families prepare to spend time together, Lisa Cumming offers four tips on how to disagree well.

Family tension can increase at this time of year. Image: Ben Wood
Family tension can increase at this time of year. Image: Ben Wood

Disagreement is in the air. From Brexit to welfare cuts there are lots of divisive issues about. And at this time of year, many people choose or feel obliged to spend time with family and friends. For many of us, tensions are almost inevitable.

I've spoken about how to manage the challenges that may come up on the Quaker podcast. While there is no magic conflict resolution recipe that works in every context, we can choose how we respond. With that in mind, here are some ideas to play with.

1. Take it step by step

First up, a very simple 'Holiday Cross Code' for any heated moments:

Stop – take a deep, slow breath to help you gather yourself so you can behave as you want to feel.

Look – at the context. What's happening? Are you safe? Who's involved?

Listen – to what is being said and listen within yourself to what you are hearing and how you are feeling about it.

Think – about whether you want or need to respond and if so how. Do you know the person you're in disagreement with and if so, what is your relationship to them?

In the podcast, I offer some examples of three different approaches to try: challenge, listen, and avoid. At times, we may need to try a combination of all three.

2. Consider your boundaries

We all have lines that can't be crossed. There might be times when you feel the need to challenge a particular view that comes up.

After the EU referendum results, for example, the UK saw a rise in hate crime. And the current flood of extremist views entering the mainstream continues. In such times, it's worth getting ideas about how to counter xenophobic or racist abuse. This short video, made by Penny Wangari-Jones of the Racial Justice Network, shares five ways to disrupt racism:

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Challenge might also feel necessary when with family or friends too. Again, it can be useful to think about what type of arguments might emerge and the form they might take. Does everyone enjoy lively disagreement or do they tend to cause upset?

Thinking about the sensitive subjects that might crop up – whether that's Brexit or who does the washing up – we can equip ourselves to disagree better.

The practice of nonviolent communication (nvc) might be useful as it encourages us both to listen and express our needs. The basic sentence construction of nvc is:

  • When ….
  • I feel …
  • Because I need …
  • Would you be willing to …?

3. Become a radical listener

Listening – really listening – is a transformative thing to do. It's also one of the hardest.

Listening to someone doesn't mean we are agreeing with them. By listening, we can check our own assumptions, see the extent of the disagreement and perhaps find unexpected treasures of shared understanding.

The Quaker wisdom in Advices and queries 17 is incredibly valuable in this regard:


Listen patiently and see the truth which other people's opinions may contain for you. Avoid hurtful criticism and provocative language…Think it possible that you may be mistaken.
- Advices and queries 17


4. Step back when you need to

Avoidance can lead to simmering tensions, sulking or passive aggressive behaviour. So when is avoiding confrontation the right thing to do?

When we've tried different approaches and patterns keep repeating. When the relationship matters more than expressing our opinion. When the situation feels unsafe. When we're tired. All of these are valid reasons to avoid confrontation.

Sharing and keeping on

There may be people around us who find this time of year particularly difficult whether through loneliness or poverty. And those of us with food in the fridge and friends to share it with can make sure we reach out to those who might be struggling.

And in the New Year we can resolve to keep on keeping on. Keep on resisting the root causes of poverty and loneliness. And to keep on striving to create a more peaceful and just society together.

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