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Tense Holiday Conversations and the Third Story

You’ve avoided the topic all day.

However, as you start to clean the dinner dishes a relative asks, “Well, what do you think?” The topic could be politics, religion, or a long-running family disagreement you’ve avoided for years. But this Christmas you are drawn into a potentially volatile conversation by a relative you see once or twice a year. What should you do?

The holidays are stressful for a multitude of reasons. One significant one is that it brings together people who are not used to being around each other and may have serious disagreements and simmering emotions that are festering. Holiday gatherings provide the perfect opportunity for them to surface. If pressed into an unavoidable conversation, how should you start it? Keep in mind that many communication experts note that how you start a conversation is the single most important part of the entire discussion! you start a conversation is the single most important part of the entire discussion!

Professional mediators Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Shelia Heen suggest most speakers make a pivotal—and sometimes unrecoverable mistake—in how they open lines of communication.

Often, we start from inside our own story.  We describe the problem from our own perspective and, in doing so, trigger just the reactions we hope to avoid. We begin from precisely the place the other person thinks is causing the problem.[1]

These scholars remind us that within every disagreement there is at least three stories, or perspectives. Every disagreement includes each person’s story and an invisible third story. The third story is “one a keen observer would tell, someone with no stake in your particular problem.”[2] The key to starting a conversation is to begin with a version that fairly represents both sides of the issue. Consider the following scenario.

Each Christmas your family engages in a simple tradition. After dinner everyone—at your father’s invitation—gathers around the tree to read a passage from the Bible. Once completed, each person goes around and shares what he or she is most thankful for this past year. Simple enough. However, some relatives object to having to start with reading the Bible. They are not religious and feel the reading of Scriptures is a not so subtle form of being preached at. They don’t mind sharing highlights from the year, but why include the Bible? In short, they feel judged. Now, while cleaning dinner dishes you are cornered by relative who is clearly bothered and doesn't want to sit through another Bible story. How should you start? Utilizing the idea of third story, consider the following possible introduction.

All of us value coming together and sharing how we are thankful. We appreciate my father facilitating this time and guiding us through fun memories. A lot of us value reading the Scriptures and being reminded how God has blessed us. Other family members appreciate sharing memories, but feel uncomfortable with so much attention being given to the Bible. Each side wants to enjoy and participate in this tradition, but to do so in a way that doesn’t make anyone feel uncomfortable.         

It is absolutely vital that a third story objectively state the best version of each other’s position. It’s also imperative to be generous to the intentions and actions of both sides. Your goal is that after hearing the third story the person who potentially disagrees with us would say, “Yes, that’s right.”

The benefit of starting with a third story that depicts the good intentions of others is that it begins a positive communication spiral where generosity, common ground, and goodwill garner generosity, common ground, and goodwill. If a conversation is started in a positive way most of the hard work is already done.

Every disagreement includes each person’s story and an invisible third story. 

All of us know that the holidays require preparation and planning in terms of decorating, buying gifts, and hosting relatives. They also require forethought on how to successfully navigate potentially difficult conversations. Such communication planning is well worth it. As the ancient writers of the book of Proverbs state, “A person finds joy in giving an apt reply – and how good is a timely word” (15:23). 

"A person finds joy in giving an apt reply-- and how good is a timely word."  - Proverbs 15:22 

[1] Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Shelia Heen, Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most (New York: Penguin Books, 1999), p. 148.
[2] Ibid., p. 150.