How to get through difficult conversations at family lunch this Easter long weekend

a person sitting at a table with a plate of food with a knife: Peter and Georgie's family found a way to make their highly-charged conversations over the holidays constructive. (Supplied: Unsplash) © Provided by ABC NEWS Peter and Georgie's family found a way to make their highly-charged conversations over the holidays constructive. (Supplied: Unsplash)

Millions of Australians will don masks and brave highways to catch up with family this long weekend, but family lunch can sometimes take a turn for the worse.

Nearly all of us have ideological and political fault lines in our immediate and extended clan, often along a generational divide.

Whether it's climate change, religion, border closures, or just plain old party politics, most families have topics that are conversational land mines.

So how do you get through family lunch without setting one off?

One family's trick for navigating its ideological differences

Georgie and her brother Charlie first started making their views known to their dad Peter when they were in their late teens.

"Georgie probably more so than Charlie, but both have got very strong thoughts about what's right and wrong," said Peter.

Peter and his wife are both retired and live in regional Victoria, and Georgie works for an NGO in Melbourne, specialising in education.

"Georgie certainly has some very different political persuasions and ideas to what I was brought up thinking."

The list of tricky conversations they've had since then is long, but one stands out.

Both Georgie and Peter point to one big disagreement several years ago, and Georgie said it was a catalyst for change in their family.

"I have a fairly strong view around gender equity and I remember having a conversation with my dad around him joining an elite men's club," she said.

"First of all, he didn't tell me he was going to join, because he said to me: 'I knew you'd cause a fuss.'

"My brother basically spilled the beans when we were all together and I reacted in a fairly profound and devastated and frustrated way.

"I would have said to him: 'How could you possibly do something like this, I'm a woman and you are married to a woman and you'll probably have a granddaughter one day, and don't you care that you are contributing to what is gender inequity?"

"That didn't land beautifully with my kind and generous dad, who absolutely strives to be a very good person and is a very good person."

Georgie made a special trip to see her dad and talk about it later, and she made her case about why she thought he shouldn't be a member.

"He said to me, 'Is this a deal breaker?' and I said, 'it's not a deal breaker, it's your life but it will always be something that I'll be challenged by.'"

It never came up again.

"From what I understand he's not a member of said club, but I don't actually know," said Georgie.

Peter said he is still a member of the club.

Recalling the disagreement, said it "was not deemed to be politically correct, within the family, especially by Georgie."

"The solution was, over all these years, 'you'll do something that I might not necessarily approve of, and I'll do the same' but I'm not going to lose a daughter over it."

How they bridged the divide

Despite that specific clash remaining unresolved, it sparked a bigger shift in Georgie's family.

She pitched an idea to them that from then on, rather than give gifts to each other at Christmas, they donate the money to charity — but not just any charity.

In the lead up to Christmas, there's a big family discussion about where the pool of money should go and it has opened up a proxy discussion about their values, according to Georgie.

"What we value is the conversation that we can spark around areas of interest that we want to support."

She said she would recommend the same approach to other families

Peter added that there's no doubt his children have shifted his own views over the years.

"Growing up in an all-boys school, going through the private school system there were things that were ingrained into us," he says.

"I have no hesitation in saying I was a homophobe and I am certainly not now.

 "That has come about through considerable discussion and interaction with a number of the younger generation, [who] I admire immensely".

He said the same shift has happened on a range of other topics and he has no doubt his views will continue to evolve.

How to avoid your own family's landmines

Clinical Psychologist Dr Charlotte Keating gives Peter and Georgie's family full marks for their approach, but said it's easy for things to go a much uglier way.

"When the particular issues at hand are ones that feel very personal, where people's communication style can be more combative or reactive or judgemental."

"When relationships break down, it's got a lot to do with poor communication leading to that loss of connection."

If the disagreement is to do with an immutable part of a person's identity, such as their sexuality, it can be incredibly painful.

"Often, deep down, there's that real sense of feeling unloved, or feeling rejected, when there's parts of ourselves that are not understood or misunderstood."

As for how to avoid family catch-ups taking an ugly turn, Dr Keating has some practical advice.

"I think it's really important to stick with your truth and to speak it from a place of heartfelt lovingness," she said.

But that doesn't mean you're obliged to talk about topics likely to start world war three.

"We do have some level of choice about what we are prepared to actually talk about on the day."

She says if things do get heated, it's okay to hit pause and make time to discuss it later, in a different setting, perhaps without alcohol in the picture.

"That's a way of setting some boundaries about what you're comfortable with."

Do not summon the four horsemen of the apocalypse at lunch

If a proverbial landmine has gone off, Dr Charlotte Keating also has advice on how to keep the argument from escalating.

She refers to the well-known psychological framework, known as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, coined by an American husband and wife team of clinical psychologists, Julie and John Gottman.

The Gottmans' research suggests the presence of these so-called four horsemen are very accurate predictors of whether or not a couple will ultimately separate.

But Dr Keating said the theory is also a useful tool in managing family conflict.

The Four Horsemen:

  • Criticism — making disagreements personal or saying something is wrong with the other person.
  • Contempt — name calling, rolling your eyes
  • Defensiveness — shifting blame onto others or making excuses
  • Stonewalling — storming off, leaving the conversation, refusing to answer questions

Noticing these behaviours in yourself and in others can help cut problems off before they become a problem, said Dr Keating.

"You want to notice things getting emotional before it gets to that point," says Dr Keating.

And finally, being aware of these behaviours can also help to plan for conversations ahead of time, so you can prevent the Horsemen from showing up.

"Even role playing with a partner or a friend," said Dr Keating.

"It takes the anxiety and the tension out of it for you because you've got a way of navigating it, you've done it before."

How to get through difficult conversations at family lunch this Easter long weekend