Think of yourself as a hostage negotiator this holiday season.

That’s the advice from one West Virginia University expert about how to diffuse stressful situations that may arise during holidays as families gather, especially in this post-election season.

Elizabeth Cohen, an assistant professor in communication studies, says that approach came from a negotiator with years of experience.

“If somebody was threatening somebody’s life and you had to talk them out of it, you wouldn’t yell at them, or call them names, or insult their worldview. That would just set them off,” Cohen says. “You would calmly ask them questions, try to get insight into how they were thinking and represent yourself as somebody who is genuinely interested in understanding what makes them tick.” Cohen can be reached at 304.293.3905 or

People can use many strategies and techniques to avoid and overcome possible hostile conversations and interactions with family and friends.

Dr. John Shibley, also an associate professor in communication studies, suggests that simply listening to the other person can play a big role in preventing these kinds of arguments.

“We really don’t learn when we’re controlling the conversation,” Shibley said. “Use listening as a means of discovering the other. Strive to listen in a non-defensive manner. When we set up a defensive posture, it’s almost impossible to receive the other person’s message. If you’re genuinely non-defensive, the conversational atmosphere will be friendly,” Shibley can be reached at 304.293.3905 or

Confrontations with family members can lead to a lot of additional stress and anxiety, according to Elijah Wise, staff psychologist with the WVU Carruth Center for Psychological and Psychiatric Services. He feels that it is important to establish easily accessible social support for dealing with these kinds of stresses.

“If you have family or friends at the gathering who understand your frustration and can help you process, don’t be afraid to lean on one another,” he says. “If you feel isolated, consider friends that you can text/call to provide reassurance. Relaxation strategies such as deep breathing and mindfulness practice can be quite effective for calming you down in the moment and can be practiced almost anywhere.” Wise can be reached at 304.293.4431 or

According to a poll done by the American Psychological Association, 52 percent of Americans stated that the recent election was a significant source of stress for them. Wise says that these stresses can make people feel powerless, hopeless and increasingly isolated and misunderstood.

Shannon Foster, the interim director of WELLWVU, says that this is added stress for many college students who may be visiting family for the first time since the election. While these stresses can be overwhelming, she reiterates that people don’t have to deal with stress alone.

“We want students to understand the way they think about stress matters,” Foster said. “Science now tells us, if you can change how your mind perceives stress, you can change how you experience stress. This can be an empowering thought process if you know the resources that are available to get you there.” Foster can be reached at 304.293.2355 or

Foster recommends that students and faculty explore the resources WVU offers through the Carruth Center and to help them combat dealing with their stress.

West Virginia University experts can provide commentary, insights and opinions on various news topics. Search for an expert by name, title, area of expertise or college/school/department in the Experts Database at WVU Today.



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