How LGBTQ people can handle difficult conversations during the holidays

A man and woman arguing
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The holiday season is a stressful time for many and for various possible reasons. For some, there may be extra stress this year from managing expectations associated with the holidays during a pandemic. For others, there may be feelings of isolation that become amplified if they see others posting photos of gatherings with family and friends. And of course there is also the stress that comes with navigating different personalities and ideologies during the holidays, something that normally happens anyway but might be extra tricky for LGBTQ people, especially this year due to the current political climate.

The safest and most sensible approach, of course, is to continue social distancing and avoid putting yourself and others at risk. But there may be situations in which this is not entirely up to every individual.

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For example, maybe you’re a college student who’s come home for winter break and, despite your objections, your parents insist that “Uncle Tim” is coming over. If Thanksgiving taught us anything, it’s that some people will gather no matter what public health officials say. And even if you’re just doing a virtual gathering over Zoom, it’s a good idea to be prepared for a different type of risk: problematic remarks about LGBTQ-related issues as well as, potentially, other hot-button topics.

Should you find yourself in this situation, here is a step-by-step guide for how you (and your allies) could handle it. Think of it as a kind of flowchart in which if the answer is “no” at any point, you can just stop and do whatever you feel you have to do.

Step 1: Do You Feel Safe?

Let’s say that someone — let’s keep using the Uncle Tim example to keep it simple — has said something you find problematic or offensive. It might not even be homophobic or transphobic, necessarily, and maybe it’s just tone deaf. Either way, before you reflexively react, it’s worth first taking a moment to assess how safe you feel, physically and emotionally, in this situation. “Feel” is a key word here because how you feel is just as important as the objective reality of the situation. Even if you’re not in real danger, if you feel unsafe you’re under no obligation to do anything that might aggravate that anxiety.

Here are two concrete ways to gauge how safe you feel:

  1. Scan the room. Is there an ally, or someone who could potentially be an ally, present—someone who could come to your aid or at least provide a way out should you start feeling overwhelmed? This isn’t about ganging up on Uncle Tim. It’s about whether you feel safe or not.
  2. Tune into your body. Take a moment to just breathe and focus on how your body feels (it’s okay, you’re not on the clock and don’t need to react to Uncle Tim right away). You might feel annoyed, tense, or even angry or nervous—these are all normal. If the feelings are very intense, though, it might be better to sit with the feelings for a bit, or maybe take a bathroom break, and just breathe before you do anything that could make the feelings worse. There’s likely to be some emotional discomfort no matter what you do, though, so tuning into your body and taking deep breaths is always a good idea.

If you’ve decided you don’t feel safe, there’s no need to continue to Step 2 and your priority can be to just do what you need to do to feel safer. That could mean saying nothing and quietly eating your dinner, or it could mean stepping out of the room for a few minutes to cool down, or it could mean giving an excuse and going back to your room for the rest of the evening.

Step 2: Assess How Important It Is to You

Step 2 actually consists of two substeps. The first is to assess how important it is to you to engage Uncle Tim. Even if you feel safe, maybe it’s just not worth it. Maybe past experience has taught you that he will invariably get angry or defensive. Or maybe 2020 has just left you feeling too burnt out. You are your own best authority and advocate here, and no one else can judge. Even if you pride yourself on usually speaking out on these issues, you don’t always have to be the spokesperson. You don’t always have to carry the cause on your shoulders at all times.

If you do wish to engage, the second substep is to assess whether you wish to use compassionate dialogue or not. Compassionate dialogue is about preserving and saving relationships, and it’s about both listening and being heard. It might not change people’s minds, necessarily, but it generally stands a better chance of at least opening their minds than, say, a confrontational approach. Admittedly, it’s often very difficult and it requires emotional labor that you might not be willing to do. Maybe you just want to tell Uncle Tim that he needs to stop or you won’t remain at the table any longer. And that’s understandable too.

Step 3: Interrupt the Problematic Comments

If you choose compassionate dialogue, you can use constructive sentence stems to invite discussion such as, “I’m hearing what you’re saying, can you tell me more?” or “I have a different perspective, but tell me more.” Let the person speak – and avoid interrupting if you can – until it’s your turn to respond. If you like, you can also lean in and use open body language as a way to show sincerity. When Uncle Tim finishes saying something you can then invite him to listen to you with something like, “Are you willing to listen to my perspective as well?”

Again, for however long the exchanges last, try to stay tuned in to the feelings in your body. With sensitive topics, it can be easy for emotions to run high and to quickly lose control of the conversation. Staying aware of your feelings can help you prevent this by taking a break if you need to or, if the conversation gets too heated, by bringing the intensity level back down a notch.

Step 4: Repair the Relationship

At a certain point in the conversation, you may feel that you’ve reached an impasse, have gained as much ground as you’re going to. Depending on how well the conversation went, you may want to close or transition the conversation in a way that helps repair and preserve the relationship. You can do this by saying something like, “I appreciate you listening to me. We’re not going to agree today but that’s okay. Maybe we can have another conversation about it someday.”

Such an open-ended and appreciative way of ending the discussion, and perhaps moving on to a less-sensitive topic, helps preserve the relationship by showing the other person that you value them even if you don’t agree with them or feel that some of their views are problematic.

With everything that has gone on this year, and is still going on, having to face the challenging situation of responding (or not responding) to problematic remarks should not be something that LGBTQ people, or any people, have to worry about. Unfortunately, it’s precisely because of all the things that are going on that the chances of running into this situation, during the holidays or anytime, are pretty significant. By using this step-by-step approach, you can at least minimize the damage and, if it’s what you choose, potentially even turn the situation into one that leads to new growth and understanding for the individuals involved.

Dr. Victoria Forrester is an assistant adjunct professor in the Online Masters in Educational Leadership program at Mills College.

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