Sarah K. Stephens

Sarah K. Stephens


It’s that time of year again where we find ourselves sitting across the table from family members we love, but perhaps don’t like, and whose views on the world are (without exaggeration) diametrically opposed to our own.

Yup, it’s the holiday season once again!

Given the tenor of 2016 thus far, I don’t think anyone’s surprised by the fact that many individuals have trepidation over the oncoming wave of family gatherings the holidays bring. As evidenced in the results of the 2016 election, it’s clear that half of our country is in disagreement with the other half–it’s only reasonable to assume that many of us will be pursuing to resurrect holiday cheer with family who represent the other half of the one we ourselves identify with.

So the question becomes:

How do we avoid (likely wine or eggnog-infused) verbal brawls with our family members?

Photograph via

My recommendation comes out of my own training as a developmental psychologist, as a teacher of exceptional young men and women at Penn State, as a mother of three teenagers, and as a partner to my husband.

Be like Mr. Rogers (Carl, that is)

Carl Rogers was a pioneer in the field of ‘talk therapy’ and one of the most profound lessons I learned in my training as a psychology student (both for my professional and personal life) was the technique of Reflection.

Quick Note: Reflection has no real place, though, when racial or ethnic slurs are being slung about. Especially if you have kids within earshot, I encourage you to make your opposition to that language quite obvious. For more nuanced matters of opinion, though, Reflection is (in my opinion) the way to go.

The premise of this approach is quite simple: As a person is describing their ideas and/or feelings, you as the listener reflect those ideas back to them.

You do not provide your own thoughts or opinions–in therapy, Rogers argued it was important for therapists to not impress their own views on their clients, but to rather guide the client towards their own resolution–and instead mirror the ideas of your conversational partner back to them.

It might go something like this:

Uncle Leroy: “America is in a crisis of debt, but I know (insert name of politico you dislike here) could fix it!”

You: (Reflects) “You wish that America did not owe money to other foreign powers and feel (said politico) can offer solutions to that problem.”

No judgment, just rephrasing. And what happens as a result? Uncle Leroy must consider his view as it is presented using different wording, and might come to a deeper and fuller realization of his views, while you are given the opportunity to fully consider your conversational partner’s view without pressure to defend your own stance. And, you can still enjoy your turkey and gravy because your blood pressure hasn’t hit a new high.

Photograph via Kevin Curtis

Another example:

Aunt Trudie: “I hate this new policy—it’s totally misguided and puts federal dollars into the wrong hands. I don’t want my taxes paying for that!”

You: (Reflects) “You wish that tax money was going to other programs that you feel are more beneficial than this new policy.”

I’ve used this technique many times in both my professional and personal life with great success. For those who are trying it for the first time, it would be helpful to practice it with someone who you are not in full disagreement with, because it can be tricky at first.

You need to be careful to not let your own opinions color your tone or inflection as you reflect back to your conversational partner. You also need to maintain an open mindset as you try and consider their viewpoint, rephrase it, and provide it back to them in your response.

With practice, though, Reflection offers a powerful tool for us to learn how to listen to each other again.

After an election that was so painful and filled with such vitriol from both sides, I can only see the opportunity to hear one another again as an act of healing—both for our extended families and for our country.

To offer one powerful model of reflection, let me describe an anecdote about Carl Rogers and his approach to therapy. To preface this, it’s worth mentioning that another essential rule, he’d argue, was to wait for your client to speak and to only reply when rephrasing what your client had articulated for you.

As the story goes, there is a tape of Carl Rogers meeting with a catatonic schizophrenic. He begins the session by stating, “I am ready to listen” or something similar, and the tape continues in silence for the next 30 minutes, until Rogers again speaks to gently end their session.

Imagine any of us sitting in companionable silence with our political opposites as we enjoy a slice of pie or a turkey leg, simply enjoying the potential for open discourse free of judgment and criticism.

Wouldn’t that be something?

Share Article:
Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInShare on Google+Pin on PinterestBuffer this pageEmail this to someone

More About Sarah K. Stephens: Sarah K. Stephens earned her Doctorate in Developmental Psychology and teaches a variety of human development courses as a lecturer at Penn State University. Although Fall and Spring find her in the classroom, she remains a writer year-round. Her short stories have appeared in Five on the Fifth, The Voices Project, The Indianola Review, and the Manawaker Studio’s Flash Fiction Podcast. Her debut novel, A Flash of Red, will be released in Winter 2016 by Pandamoon Publishing. Follow her on Twitter or Facebook and read more of her writing on her blog.