The Best Way to Avoid an Argument at Your Next Family Gathering, According to a Neuroscientist

Whether it’s the holiday table, a wedding event, or your annual family reunion, keep tension at bay with this handy skill.


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Politics, climate change, your aunt’s impending divorce, your brother’s new tattoo—whatever topic triggers tension at your family gatherings, you know it can completely derail what’s supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year. There’s a serious difference between passionate, healthy debate at the family table and heated arguments that escalate and end in tears, yelling, and (at best) awkwardness for all. Even the closest families have had one weird Thanksgiving where no one was quite the same after that fight.

If the anticipation of a large family gathering full of arguments is causing some of your holiday stress, a lot of that anxiety and frustration may come from feeling like you lack control over the situation. You can’t magically force everyone to be on their best behavior, and you can’t exactly write a script for everyone to follow. But here's one thing you can do to put yourself in the driver’s seat and steer the conversation in a pleasant direction: Be a good storyteller, suggests Paul J. Zak, PhD, professor of economics, psychology and management at Claremont Graduate University, founder of Immersion Neuroscience, and scientific advisor to Remento, a science-backed app for facilitating and capturing family stories through conversation.

A good story isn’t just an entertaining distraction from hot-button subjects, but also a way to change the mood at the table—on a neurochemical level. Hearing an engaging story promotes feelings of empathy and curiosity in the listener, according to Zak, author of Immersion: The Science of the Extraordinary and the Source of Happiness

“When immersed in a good story, the listener’s brain transports the listener into the other person’s life,” he says. “My research shows storytelling increases empathy for others through the release of the neurochemicals dopamine and oxytocin. These are the same neurochemicals that are released when we interact with loved ones—in short, listening to an immersive story is an act of love that strengthens attachment to others.” What’s more, he’s found that a story is often more immersive and transporting to its listeners when told to a group, “among friends or family around the dinner table.”

How to Become a Better Storyteller

Being a good storyteller is a natural talent for some, but it’s also a skill you can learn and practice. Here are a few things the best storytellers do that can help bring everyone at the table into a better headspace:

  • Hook them in—or, “open hot,” as Zak says. “Attention is a limited resource, so lead with the most exciting part to capture interest and then fill in the details,” he says. “A good story starts with a mystery: How could this thing possibly happen to these people?"
  • Set the scene: Develop the characters and the setting using real details, descriptions, and emotions. “[S]hare the emotions of the characters in the story, especially as they lead to the climax of the story,” Zak says.
  • Bring it home. How did the story resolve? How did the personalities involved feel about that resolution? 
  • Keep the story as close to personal as possible. “Stories need to be at ‘human scale, not about lots of people or big world events [you] saw on TV,” Zak says. “The key is describing the personal experience [you] had, how it felt, and what [you] did.

Prompt a Good Story From Others

Not a big storyteller yourself? You can always prep some questions, ice breakers, and conversation starters to use at the holiday table or when meeting up with family. Find the best storyteller in the family (you know who they are), and nudge them into a good narrative with an intriguing question.

"Try to take it beyond the basics—what do you genuinely want to know about the people gathered?" Zak says. "A great place to start is open-ended questions about important times in others’ lives: 'What was your favorite class in college?', 'What's the best advice you've ever received?', or 'Tell me about an amazing meal you had.'" If you're talking to an older relative with memory issues, tailor your questions to them, and be specific, Zak adds. The Remento app has tons of recommendations for story prompts and memory joggers, perfect for connecting with relatives (and it's free to download!).

And be a good listener. Pay attention, look at the storyteller ("listen with your eyes," as Zak puts it, and ask questions. "The best way to elicit great stories from others is to show genuine interest and curiosity," Zak says. "Often, we're so focused on what we'll say when it's our turn, that we don't allow ourselves to be immersed in another’s story."

What to Do if Things Get Heated

"Of course, no matter how relaxed people are, our lives and the news are full of divisive issues, and it’s not uncommon for conversation to get heated," Zak says. If this happens, here are some of his top reminders for keeping calm and controlling the only thing you can: your response to the situation.

  • Listen before you react. "An act of love towards others you care about is to simply listen to what others have to say, really listen, and ask respectful questions," Zak says. "By listening, you could learn something or simply give people you care about the gift of your attention."
  • Remember that everyone is entitled to their point of view—and you don't need to share the same one or fix theirs. "Most conversations are about opinions, not facts (even though we often state opinions as facts), so accept them as such," he says. "Everyone’s opinion is equally valid."
  • Know when it's time for a segue. "If the conversation really gets heated, graciously suggest a new topic," Zak says. "Let the involved parties know that you hear them and their viewpoints are valid, but it may be best to have this conversation at a different time. Then make a transition to a lighter topic to re-establish psychological safety before diving into any conversations that would require vulnerability, or could open up the door to more divisive debates."
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