By Riley Petersen

The holidays are a great time for family and friends to reconnect. Unfortunately, it is also a time for feuds to brew and dinners to be ruined when controversial topics boil over. A Virginia Tech expert offers tips on how to better manage conversations around contentious issues.

“No one wants the holidays to be unpleasant, yet they can quickly become so in these polarized times,” said Todd Schenk, an associate professor in the Virginia Tech School of Public and International Affairs. “Family members often do not agree on important issues such as climate change, immigration, election integrity, crime, and abortion.”

Schenk explained that although many may attempt to avoid these conversations, it is often only a matter of time before they come up. 

“Civil discourse around issues offers the clearest path to shared learning and increased empathy,” said Schenk. “It’s also critical if we seek to be persuasive; changing opinions is really hard, but virtually impossible through insults and adversarial approaches.”

When these conversations do eventually come up, Schenk offers the following advice to make the exchanges worthwhile.

“Being thoughtful in the when and how of approaching sensitive topics is key to having productive conversations,” said Schenk. “We often fall into talking about ‘hot topics,’ but I would suggest explicitly seeking agreement among the parties that you are going to ‘go there’ and perhaps set aside a time for doing so.”

Schenk notes that the dinner table after a heavy meal and a few drinks may not be the most productive space for these conversations. Creating the time and space to hold these conversations can be vital when discussing issues that matter deeply to you and your loved ones. In addition, it may be helpful to set ground rules such as ‘no personal insults’ and ’no interrupting.’ 

“Ideally, the parties involved will agree to approach the conversation with genuine curiosity and respect for the personhood and perspectives of others,” said Schenk.

Schenk also emphasizes that utilizing ‘active listening’ techniques can be key to productive conversations. Active listening involves:

  • Listening to understand and not respond
  • Asking to clarifying and probing questions
  • Speaking from the “I” and avoiding the “you”
  • Interrogating the issues, not the people
  • Providing data and information when appropriate 
  • Sharing personal experiences as appropriate;
  • Aiming to speak honestly
  • Being mindful of the way you communicate, verbally and non-verbally
  • Communicating with a healthy level of respect
  • Making space and taking space
  • Approaching discomfort with curiosity

With these tips in mind, family gatherings can not only be fun and relaxing but also safe spaces to share thoughts and feelings about the world around us.

About Schenk
Schenk is an associate professor in the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech. He has extensive research and consulting experience working on collaborative governance and environmental policy and planning issues, including involving climate change adaptation. Read his full bio here


To secure an interview, contact Shannon Andrea in the media relations office at or 703-399-9494.

Share this story