Diffusing family feuds over the holidays

Article contributed by Amy Sargent.

If you dread holiday gatherings because you have to spend time with your family, you’re not alone. I’ve talked with so many who say they wish they could just skip the holidays so they don’t have to ‘deal’ with certain family members. And if you’ve ever had conflict with someone you’re ‘supposed’ to get along with, you know how rough that can be. With certain members of your tribe, you probably can even predict exactly how long it will take before a disagreement will begin–10 minutes after walking in the door–as soon as you sit down to dinner–when Uncle George brings up politics–it seems to happen at the same time and around the same issues, year after year.

Unless you’ve opted to ditch the family altogether and hop a plane to a tropical island, it’s most likely you’ll be interacting with the clan a good deal over the next few days. But it doesn’t have to be a place of arguing and bickering. I’d like to offer an alternate solution…something you can do to help to keep negative situations from escalating into an all out family feud. But before we go there — I want to suggest three things you can’t do:

  1. You can’t control what others think of you.
  2. You can’t control what others say about you.
  3. You can’t control what others do.

In other words, you can’t control others. No matter how much you may want to, you don’t get to be a puppeteer and pull the strings to make everyone act in a way you would like. But what you can do is control your own thoughts and actions, especially your own communication skills. Choosing to be intentional about how you communicate with your family can have a direct influence on the nature of  interactions at your upcoming holiday celebrations.

Communication is the ability to listen deeply to understand what others are saying, and in turn send clear and convincing messages back to them. It can take the form of verbal or non-verbal — often people say as much with the expression on their face as with the words that come out of their mouth. And again, though you can’t control how others communicate with you, you can manage how you communicate with them.

What does it look like to be a good communicator?  Some seem to think if they talk loudly enough to command others’ attention that they have this competency down pat. But I beg to differ. People who have strong communication skills often aren’t the ones doing most of the talking. They are able to put others at ease so they feel comfortable sharing openly. They are effective in give-and-take, knowing when to talk and when to let others speak. They listen to understand, as opposed to listening to prep what they want to say next. They are able to hear feedback without becoming defensive, can deal with difficult conversations straightforwardly without the need to retaliate or run away, and make others feel valued for their opinions and outlooks, even if they differ from their own.

Those who struggle with communication–and a few particular family members may immediately come to mind–can be difficult to connect with and come across as unapproachable. They may interrupt, or talk too much, or fail to listen when you speak–and isn’t it so easy to tell when someone’s not listening? They lack tact when expressing their opinions and tend to think it’s their way or the highway. They often don’t ask open-ended questions or seek to understand the why’s behind what someone is saying. They rarely make good eye contact and often won’t pause to let others respond or jump in. They may even ridicule others or have emotional outbursts when things get heated.

Sound familiar?

Again, you can’t control those who are poor communicators. And that should come as a relief. Knowing there’s not a thing you can do to keep Aunt Ethel from sharing too much information about her bowel troubles, or to prevent Cousin Mike from bragging about his recent promotion, or to prevent dad from hurling insults about your career aspirations (or lack of) is very freeing. It’s hard enough to control yourself, let alone attempting to herd everyone around you. Who has time and energy for that? What you CAN do is manage and modify your own behavior to make interactions with family members as pleasant as possible.

“One of the most beautiful qualities of true friendship is to understand and to be understood.” Lucius Annaeus Seneca

It takes effort to be intentional about your conversations, and preparing ahead of time can help. Thinking about behaviors which can enhance conversations as well as knowing which ones to avoid will enable you to walk through that door with confidence, no matter whom you’re about to face. Then, in the moment, you get to choose to act appropriately despite what others say or do.

To keep conversations positive and prevent them from going downhill this holiday season, here are some behaviors you can try:

  • Smile.  Sounds simple, but mustering up a genuine smile when you first see the family can help diffuse negativity from the start. Your body language communicates attitude far before your mouth forms words. As well, a warm hug, when appropriate, can work wonders. Research has found that a 20-second hug actually releases oxytocin, one of the feel-good hormones, into our system, which can work miracles toward melting down tension and negativity. I realize that long of a hug may be a little awkward–and not appropriate with some–but you get the idea.

“Peace begins with a smile.” ― Mother Teresa

  • Ask to understand. Think of conversations as a portal to learn more about the other person, rather than a chance to speak your peace. A good rule of thumb is to ask more than tell. Instead of asking questions that can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no”, try asking the hows and whys.  “How do you like your new job?”  “Why did you choose [insert location] for your vacation?” “I’d love to know more about how you [insert topic]. ” Asking open-ended questions can make the other person feel valued and help you see things from their frame of reference.

“Empathy begins with understanding life from another person’s perspective.” –Sterling K. Brown

  • Actively listen. Have you ever caught yourself asking a question then not even listening to the answer? We all do it. Tuning into what the other person is saying, asking questions to clarify, and repeating back what you heard shows you care. Nod when you agree. Mirror their expressions as you hold eye contact. Try to picture what they’re describing (except maybe Aunt Ethel’s bodily function details!). Good listening makes others feel valued and enables you to learn more about them.

“There’s a lot of difference between listening and hearing.”
― G. K. Chesterton

  • Discard distractions. Simply put, put your phone away.  There’s nothing more devaluing than someone glancing at their phone while you’re talking…so don’t do the same to others. Even better, turn it off for a few hours so you can really focus on the person in front of you.

“Cell phones bring you closer to the person far from you, but take you away from the ones sitting next to you.” — Anonymous

  • Build bridges. Look for “me too” moments–common ground upon which you can both agree. Listening for shared experiences, shared dreams, and shared emotions, and letting them know you can relate, builds rapport and connection. Focusing on what you agree upon can diffuse tensions that arise from being at odds.

“No matter what message you are about to deliver somewhere, whether it is holding out a hand of friendship, or making clear that you disapprove of something, is the fact that the person sitting across the table is a human being, so the goal is to always establish common ground. ” –Madeleine Albright

  • Resist rivalry. When someone says something that feels like an insult, it’s easy to come back with a retort of your own. If possible, try not to take things personally, even if comments sound as if they’re (or are!) directed to you. Usually when someone puts another down, it is coming from a dark and empty place within their own heart. Offering compassion and realizing they may in a struggle you don’t understand can help you resist the temptation to view them as an opponent.

“Don’t take anything personally.  Nothing others do is because of you.”  — Don Miguel Ruiz

  • Express appreciation. Everyone likes to hear a compliment. Try to find something about the person or what they’re saying that you like, even if most of what’s coming out of their mouth is annoying you. Offer a sincere compliment–it is better-received than any festively-wrapped gift.  It could be as simple as, “I like the way you think about that” or “I value the direction you’re going”, or “That was a thoughtful thing to do”, etc. A great sentence starter is, “Do you know what I like about you?”

“Gracious words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.” — ancient proverb

  • Find the fun. It’s hard to keep your sense of humor when others are stomping on your last nerve. But retaining your ability to ‘laugh at the craziness’ can go a long way in keeping things positive.  Of course your humor should never be demeaning or hurtful, but stepping back and grinning at the ‘uniqueness’ of each family member can help keep spirits bright.

“A sense of humor is part of the art of leadership, of getting along with people, of getting things done.” — Dwight David Eisenhower

Intentionally steering your conversations down a positive path this holiday can be a great start toward building better family bonds. It won’t be perfect…bad habits can take a while to break. But doing your part to create uplifting, engaging conversations is vital to developing authentic, amicable interactions with the family and can help avoid feuds. And you’ll feel better knowing you showed up with your best. Will it be easy? No. But will it be worth it?  Yes.

“Getting along well with other people is still the world’s most needed skill. With it…there is no limit to what person can do. We need people, we need the cooperation of others.” — Earl Nightingale

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