People in my family are not known to be wallflowers -- or keep their opinions to themselves. They're charming and rowdy and rarely quiet about their positions on anything. Most times, it makes for fun and witty banter. Other times, the conversation can take a sharp turn down a dark alley (like when my super conservative, Donald Trump-loving brother locks horns with our super conservative, Hillary Clinton-loving mother; believe me, it's intense). At times like this, I find choosing sides is not the most productive or wisest thing to do; it just adds fuel to an already-hot fire.

Here's the thing: I have definite points of view that I'm not afraid to share, but I love my family and the last thing I want to do is spend our time together engaged in impossible debates that produce no winners. No one ever walks away from these conversation feeling good. On the other hand, staying away from controversial topics is not always possible -- or even preferable. After all, science shows that mindless small talk is a definite downer.

There's a better way, experts say.

If you dread the petty squabbles and disagreements that seem to crop up this time of year, experts suggest adopting an "appreciative mindset" to help you navigate difficult conversations both at home and in the workplace. Appreciation, coupled with mindfulness, allows you to be present during conversations without getting plugged into the drama.

Here's why:

Mindfulness matters

According to Harvard psychologist and author of the best-selling classic Mindfulness, Ellen Langer, mindfulness "is a flexible state of mind in which we are actively engaged in the present, noticing new things and sensitive to the context."

In difficult conversations, mindfulness is especially useful. Being mindful allows us to widen our view of the situation, consider different perspectives and accept new information that may challenge our ideas. As communication expert Dalton Kehoe says in his course Effective Communication Skills, mindfulness allows us to "challenge our belief that we actually know what's going on when, in fact, we're only assuming."

"An attitude of mindfulness helps us suspend our need to attribute motivation and to mind-read," he says.

Appreciation matters

If mindfulness is about being open to new information, appreciation is about how to evaluate this new information. Appreciation is the other side of mindfulness.

To understand how the two mind states work together, it helps first to understand the three essential meanings of the word "appreciate." As defined in the dictionary, "appreciate" means:

  • To be fully conscious of (as in, "I appreciate your situation")

  • To raise in value (as in, "Something of worth has appreciated in value")

  • To value or regard highly (as in, "I appreciate you")

Appreciation is a way of looking at the world in a way that focuses on "what's working here?" not, "what's failing here?" It's not a glass half-empty or a glass half-full view of life. "It's a positive problem-solving view," says Kehoe.

"The appreciative mind allows us to see the useful, positive aspects that already exist in the current situation or the people present," he notes.

So why does this matter? It matters because in difficult or tense conversations, whether at work or at home, appreciation allows us to focus on the positive aspects of a situation, not simply the bad news your boss delivers on a Friday afternoon or the annoying comments your aunt Alice makes at Thanksgiving dinner.

How to activate an appreciative mindset

In the workplace, the quickest way to shift to an appreciative mindset is to start recurring meetings with questions that prompt attendees to share their professional wins with the rest of the group. For example, What went well for you this week (month)? At home, you might ask family members to share something exciting that happened during their day. 

Of course, this strategy is only effective if the people in the group give the speaker their undivided attention. If we are going to fully appreciate others, we have to get out of our own way long enough to communicate attentiveness and interest in what they're saying.

An appreciative view includes valuing and honoring others while they are talking, by showing them things like:

  • Respect (giving the speaker time to finish a thought; not interrupting to take over the discussion.)

  • Consideration (asking if it's a good time to talk instead of just starting right in.)

  • Direct acknowledgement of their value by asking for their input (what do you think? how do see it?)

  • Legitimizing their feelings (I'd feel that way too.)

  • Ask for clarification where appropriate (asking for clarification keeps you focused on what's really going on from the other's perspective)

No doubt, the holidays can be a stressful time. But they can also be an opportunity to connect with and learn from our friends and loved ones. By adopting an appreciative mindset, you'll be better able to enjoy the holiday spirit.