Diversity is on the Table at Holiday Gatherings

Tools to manage candid conversations about diversity and inclusion this holiday season

With the holiday season upon us, many folks are rightly nervous about dreaded conversations with family members about divisive issues such as politics, religious beliefs, or the economy. Is it possible to discuss these polarizing issues without intense conflict? 

In my diversity and inclusion work, I have found the following tools to be some of the best for fostering candid conversations where parties can speak freely and respectfully:

  1. Perspective taking
  2. Re-thinking
  3. Boundary setting

Perspective taking

I recently volunteered to help out at the polls to support diversity and inclusion for my local school board election. In my community, there is a heated debate about what teachers in K-12 schools can say in the classroom about race, gender, politics, religion – and generally anything related to diversity and inclusion. Imagine my surprise when I arrived at the polling site for my volunteer shift and was stationed next to a member of the opposing school board slate for 3 hours. The conversation started with small talk about the weather (much like holiday gatherings) then progressed into deeper topics. 

I asked the person to explain their school board slate’s position. He kindly shared he believed in parents rights and the priority on test scores. I listened and nodded, asking a few follow-up questions. I mentioned a few facts as he shared, yet listened to understand first. When he didn’t reciprocate the interest in learning about our slate’s platform, I asked if I could share why I had decided to support my slate. He agreed, and I stated matter of factly, “The reason I support this slate is because our children need to be prepared to enter a global workforce where people will have different backgrounds and experiences. To not prepare them for diversity is a disservice to their education.”

By the end of the shift, we were trading facts and stories and he said he learned things from me that he hadn’t ever heard before. I don’t think he’d spent a lot of time with someone like me. That’s the thing about perspective-taking, trying on others’ perspectives usually leads to learning and growth. Did I change his mind? No, but there was a new openness and willingness to try to understand each other’s perspective.

Perspective-taking is about trying to understand the experiences of someone different from you without being able to experience them yourself. It requires creating empathy-bridges to the other party through listening and learning, hopeful reciprocation, and eventually unlearning and relearning from a new perspective. Our brains dislike learning things that we believe we already know and learning new things as we grow older. Channel that youthful curiosity you once had or model the curiosity of the young people in your life. 


If you go into a charged conversation with a closed mind – “they will never change” – you will most definitely succeed. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. When was the last time that strategy was successful on you? People want to think for themselves and use their free will to develop their own opinions. That means that we have to also be malleable in our opinions and assumptions. To turn on the neocortex, the rational part of our brains, we have to keep her emotions in check. Mindfulness techniques like taking a short walk, doing some deep breathing or spending a few moments collecting your thoughts in the bathroom can help mentally shift to a more productive place. 

Adam Grant’s podcast Re-Thinking and book Think Again are great resources to build a re-thinking mindset. Some of my favorite questions to foster re-thinking are:

  • “What information would you need to rethink that?” 
  • “Let’s research this together and see what data we can find about the issue.” 
  • “I used to think that too.”
  • “What did you mean when you said that?”

These questions invite people into a conversation versus a tug-of-war where neither party is listening to one another and just hoping to get their point across. Talking at someone, versus with them, usually deepens existing opinions rather than shifting opinions.

Boundary setting

Controversial issues can feel very personal. It’s important to preserve your energy for productive conversations. If you spent time trying to take on the other person’s perspective, help them rethink their perspective and are staying open to rethinking yours, and you’re still at a standstill – it might be time to call a timeout. I find after several minutes of engaging with someone you can generally feel if they’re open to a conversation or they just want to argue. It is sometimes plainly obvious if someone is not open to a different perspective, and in that instance you should practice clear boundary setting. A few boundary talk tracks that you might use to respectfully end a conversation that is going nowhere are:

  • “Maybe it’s OK that we disagree on this.”
  • “I’m glad we discussed this but perhaps we move on to another topic?”
  • “I don’t find that viewpoint appropriate so I’d like to talk about something else please.”
  • “Let’s agree to disagree and move on.”

In especially tense settings, you might make eye contact with a potential ally in the group or have a predetermined signal with someone designed to interrupt and help you safely exit the situation. You have to be aware of your trigger points. Once you’re emotionally triggered and can’t think rationally the conversation is likely to be unproductive. Know your threshold and get others to support you if you can.

Holidays don’t have to be fraught with divisive issues and confrontations. These issues will likely be discussed at holiday gatherings, so having these tools ready to foster candid conversations can make all the difference between a divisive conversation and one of growth.