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Holiday COVID Conversations: Take Two

Difficult conversations are ideal opportunities to improve your relationships.

Key points

  • In The Holiday COVID Conversation, families may address each other's different versions of what it means to have fun and stay safe.
  • The "Holiday COVID Conversation" is a chance to get better at hard conversations, “thinking together” in creative and loving ways.
  • During hard conversations with friends, partners, and relatives, people knit together the bonds that sustain them.

We are fast approaching that wonderful, magical, terrifying time of year when we get to travel long distances in bad weather to be with our friends and family, often the very people with whom we have the most complex relationships of our lives. These encounters will be intensified by unrealistically high hopes and perhaps equally unrealistic fears.

photo by Kathryn Ford
Source: photo by Kathryn Ford

This year, to make things even more interesting, we will have the extra anticipation from having missed these holidays last year. On top of that, we have the extra complexity of everyone having different versions of what it means to have fun and stay safe. It’s time for “The Next COVID Conversation!” This is the conversation that we’re all tired of, but not done with. We are now going to be having the Holiday COVID Conversation Take Two.

It's time to get better at hard conversations

Conversations about pandemic safety are difficult because they inevitably involve two things we care deeply about: the need to be together, and our different, closely held beliefs about what is safe. These issues capture the very essence of life in relationship. We want and need contact with each other and yet this contact, at times, can feel complicated, awkward, and even hazardous.

Time to turn this problem into an opportunity for getting better at hard conversations. Yes, it is doable!

Hard conversations are a necessary part of life with other people—whether it’s the one with your neighbor about who should pay for getting the fence repaired, the harder one with your spouse about whether to send the kids to private school or the Holiday COVID Conversation.

We do sometimes convince ourselves that these conversations are optional. But we pay a high price for avoiding them: First, we don’t get better at this, and second, we have more stress. Thriving, in life and in love, has to do with knowing how to turn problems into learning. It is in these tricky conversations with friends, partners and relatives that we knit together, or weaken, the bonds that sustain us.

I was once asked by a young man who was not in a major relationship, but eager to be, “How can I prepare myself to be in a happy couple?” My answer: “Take every opportunity to have hard conversations.” Hard conversations are our chance to become better people and to have better relationships as we learn about:

  • Ourselves and each other
  • How to listen
  • How to talk about differences with love and respect
  • How to collaborate and build trust

3 keys to a successful hard conversation

Here are three key things that you can do to make these conversations successful.

1. Prioritize the relationship

Keep yourself and the conversation on track by putting the relationship first. Every conversation has a significant effect on your ongoing connection. Aim for a conversation that leaves you feeling good about yourself, good about the other person, and good about the relationship. After all, most COVID conversations happen between people who are important to each other. Put the relationship ahead of being right, or even solving the problem.

2. Present the problem rather than the solution

Most problems have more than one solution. If you are concerned about sitting at the table with your cousin, who has not been vaccinated, rather than launching a campaign for her to get vaccinated or to cancel Thanksgiving dinner, start with your concerns. Perhaps, “This is awkward but… I’m very nervous about being in close contact with people who have not been vaccinated. Can we talk about this?” This approach will help her to be open to you and to the conversation. And this openness will help the two of you to discover and listen to the various ways you each feel about this and then to have the most creative problem solving possible.

3. Team up to solve for both of your concerns

Solve for your needs and the other person’s needs. In a relationship of adversaries, there is a power struggle to see who will win and who will lose, or whose needs will be considered and whose will be disregarded. Love means that each of you is concerned with both. You need to feel safe and relaxed at dinner. She needs to feel in control over whether or not she gets vaccinated. Both of you want to see each other and to have the holidays together. First, listen to understand. Then explore creatively. A brave conversation such as this is no longer an either/or question. It’s an open exploration of multiple needs, multiple solutions. This is the kind of dialogue that William Isaacs calls, “thinking together.”[1]

Hard conversations turn into relationship-enhancing dialogue when you remain open, collaborative, and loving. If you emerge from the COVID conversation feeling that you have helped each other to do this, you will walk away with more than a solution to the unvaccinated-cousin problem. You will have strengthened your bond and your ability to engage in other hard conversations.

Don’t wait! Avoiding these conversations is the worst possible strategy. Have them early and often as you make your other preparations for turkeys and trimmings.

Of course, the COVID conversation is not the only opportunity for difficult conversations during the holiday season. There is the conversation with your college friend about his failure to call you, ever, or the one with your mother about “still” being a vegetarian, or with your father or grandfather about the fact that he shouldn’t drive his car anymore. With a bit of gumption and goodwill, you can start to appreciate these for the opportunities they are—the chance to get better at the hard conversations that are part of being fully ourselves and fully together.


[1] Isaacs, William. Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together. Random House. New York, New York.

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