How to Prevent Controversial Topics From Ruining Your Holiday Conversations

controversial topics

I’ve written quite a bit lately about how the holidays fill me with a sense of gratitude and a real hopeful anticipation as we head into a New Year.

But you can’t talk about the holidays without acknowledging that it can be stressful having so much family under one roof! Once you’re done catching up, playing with the little ones, eating, and opening gifts, it’s inevitable that conversation will drift to some topics that folks have very strong and very different opinions about.

And, for better or worse, the world is giving us an awful lot to talk about right now!

If “How about those Chiefs!” can’t clear the air, try one of these four strategies to keep a controversial topic from spoiling your eggnog.

1. Consider the other person’s perspective.

When I sit down with a new client at Keen Wealth, the very first thing I do is ask questions that help me learn where this person is coming from. I ask about family, work, past experiences with money, and goals for a successful financial future. When we move into making actual financial plans, each client will have different views about certain things, such as risk tolerance, saving cash versus investing in the markets, how much they should help children with college, etc. And that’s OK! Because I’m mindful of how a client’s story has shaped his or her perspective on finance, I’m able to work on a personalized financial plan that will put them on the path towards realizing their goals.

Outside of the office, I try to have that same understanding about different views I have with folks, especially friends and family. Sometimes we know people so well that we forget how different their life experiences have been from our own. Taking a breath to flip a controversial topic around and look at it from another angle can make you more mindful of that person’s perspective and less likely to get angry about it.

2. Really listen.

Another rule of all my client meetings and phone conversations is that the client gets my full attention and my total respect. My door is closed, my cell phone is switched off, and nothing is open on my computer unless I’m looking up some data that’s relevant to the meeting. Even if the client is saying something I disagree with, I give him or her time and space to finish the thought before I say a word.

Personal or controversial topics can turn ugly when the person you’re speaking to doesn’t think you’re really listening. It can be tempting to just be formulating a response instead of really trying to understand the other viewpoint. Whatever your cell phone is chiming about, it can wait. And when it’s your turn to talk, try to contribute to the conversation without immediately disagreeing. Phrases like “I understand how that must have felt” or “I’d never thought about it that way” can go a long way towards lightening tensions and leading both parties towards some common ground. So can follow-up questions like, “Can you explain what the means?” or “I’d love to learn more, could you email that article to me?”

3. Keep your cool.

I’m happy to say that I haven’t had many contentious client meetings at Keen Wealth. But I have been in rooms where spouses weren’t on the same page about their retirement goals. I’ve seen emotions rise as grieving families unpacked a loved one’s estate plan. And as a business owner and charitable board member, I’ve had team meetings where a group of smart, accomplished, well-meaning people didn’t agree on the best path forward.

When a controversial topic is under discussion, I find that the person with the coolest head in the room is usually the one who leads everyone to a positive outcome. I don’t have any control over that brother and sister who are at each other’s throats about dad’s last will and testament. But I can control my reaction, my emotions, and how I use my words. I can choose to get sucked into an argument. Or I can choose to listen, be mindful of others’ perspectives, and respond with respect and courtesy.

Even if Uncle Jack or Aunt Jill really start going over the top during dinner, that doesn’t mean you have to match their bad behavior. Calm can be contagious. Hot heads might cool if they see your smiling, attentive face a couple chairs over.

4. “Seriously though … How about those Chiefs!”

No topic is off limits when I’m talking to clients at Keen Wealth. I believe that the best financial plan is one that addresses a client’s whole life, and not just their money. I’m always happy to discuss how our process can help make the financial side of life’s challenges a little easier.

But the holiday dinner table is a different story!

If you’re really worried that the news of the day or some simmering family issues might ruin your holidays, set some ground rules: no controversial topics of conversation! Take religion, politics, and Aunt Bessie’s lake house off the menu. If someone tries to broach a verboten topic, change it! Pivot to sports, the movie you saw last night, your kids’ recital, or where you found this amazing pumpkin pie recipe that you’re all enjoying.

One of our golden rules at Keen Wealth is: don’t let what’s happening in the news affect your approach to financial planning. Keep that idea in mind at the holidays too. Good news and bad news come and go. But your family is always going to be your family. Today’s headlines shouldn’t get between you and the people whose support, wisdom, and love will be a big part of your New Year, and beyond.

Bill Keen: If someone brings up controversial topics at your holiday dinner, remember that calm can be contagious.

About Bill

Bill Keen is a CHARTERED RETIREMENT PLANNING COUNSELOR℠ and independent financial advisor with more than 25 years of industry experience. As the founder and CEO of Keen Wealth Advisors, a registered investment advisory firm, he specializes in providing personalized retirement planning designed to help people thrive before and during their retirement years. With a passion for educating others, Bill regularly blogs about retirement planning, hosts the podcast Keen on Retirement, and has contributed to U.S. News and World Report, Reuters, Wall Street Journal’s Market Watch, Yahoo Finance, and other publications. Based in Overland Park, Kansas, Bill and his team work with clients throughout the greater Kansas City area and across the nation. To learn more, connect with him on LinkedIn or visit www.keenwealthadvisors.com.

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