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Why is Conflict More Magnetic During the Holidays?

Posted November 23, 2020 • Conflict Mastery,Emotional Intelligence,Leadership,Mindfulness • by Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler, Ph.D.

“…the human propensity to have arguments always fills the available space…” – Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash


These days, many leaders are struggling with lack of focus at work. The day-to-day needs of family and children can be overwhelming. The impacts of the global health and economic crises, political polarization, global degradation, and racial injustice are immense, and can make it challenging to focus on day-to-day needs at work. And with holidays coming up in the U.S., distraction may hit an all-time high.

Conflict magnetism 

Especially in this context, one of the factors that causes us to get distracted from our work is what I call “conflict magnetism.” This refers to the natural pull to become ensnared in an argument that seems important in the moment, even if it is not aligned with our main purposes for our lives or our work.

For example, the magnetic conflicts that capture our attention may concern politics—when we find ourselves debating with an extended family member the merits of a current policy agenda that we know very little about—or more personal topics—when we blame our spouse for leaving the dirty dishes in the sink, again.

Even when these issues are peripheral to what we truly care about and want to impact, they magnetically draw us in and weaken our ability to focus on anything else. Something that seems to matter very much in the moment takes us away from what really matters to us in the long run.

The Power of (Not) Now

The challenges we are collectively facing have left many people feeling emotionally raw: worried, sad, depressed, and anxious about the future. These are not emotional states from which helpful debate tends to take place.

When emotions are running high, sometimes the best you can do is not to seek agreement. As I said in an article entitled, “How to Talk Politics Without Ruining Your Relationships” by Erika Stalder in The Zoe Report, sometimes it’s best to avoid tough conversations until emotions have cooled down on all sides.

The social-psychological phenomenon called the “contact hypothesis” suggests that simply being in contact with those whose views differ from our own can help us understand and have greater empathy for others.

So if the idea of talking politics with Uncle Joe during this Thanksgiving’s (virtual) family gathering doesn’t exactly lead you to jump up and down with excitement, remember that simply spending time with Uncle Joe may be a more realistic and helpful goal this year.

Knowing when to seek agreement versus when to seek true dialogue versus when to simply show your care for others whose views may be wholly different from yours—these are the markers of skilled leaders who know how to navigate conflict in tough times.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that we should never discuss thorny topics. (I am also not suggesting that we must be assured “safe space” in order to do so, though I do have suggestions about how to create the conditions for constructive dialogue, which I will describe in a future article.)

What I am suggesting is that a sign of true leadership is knowing how to choose when, under what circumstances, and with whom to discuss potentially divisive topics.

I am suggesting that we should consider our purposes and goals for our conversations and acknowledge that potentially divisive issues are best talked about when there is an explicit reason for doing so, an intentional space made to talk about them, and clear principles agreed upon for how to talk about them.

This will not only improve the constructiveness of our conversations and strengthen our relationships, but it will also have the effect of helping us stay focused on the issues, people, and yes, the work, that matter most to us.

Some suggestions:

IDENTIFY YOUR FOCUS: You can ask yourself a general question, like: “What are my purposes or goals in life or work right now?” or a more specific one: “What are my goals for this family gathering / team zoom meeting / conversation?”

THINK AHEAD: What potentially divisive topics are likely to arise? Which topics align with your purposes or goals versus which topics may magnetically draw you away from your focus?

PLAN HOW TO STAY FOCUSED: When others raise potentially divisive topics, what is your plan? Will you try to convince Uncle Joe you’re right this holiday season? Will you seek to engage in dialogue? Or will you let Uncle Joe know you appreciate him, and you look forward to finding a time to talk politics when you’re both ready?

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