Anna Goldfarb c.2019 The New York Times Company
We're not saying it's going to happen ... but just in case.
For many of us, the holidays are the ultimate stress test: travel snags, the pressure to make things perfect, the sometimes overwhelming holiday “cheer” … not to mention the family drama.
“We’re not always our best selves around our families,” said Amy E. Gallo, the author of the “HBR Guide to Dealing With Conflict” and co-host of the Women at Work podcast. “We often say things I think that we don’t really mean or that we wished we hadn’t said.”
Even the most placid families can experience some ripples around the holidays, but don’t despair: This is overwhelmingly common.
“We all have tension, but it’s how we cope with it that is most important,” said Kira Birditt, a research associate professor at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan.
It’s understandable to feel exasperated when relatives yell, criticise or make snide comments, but you have more power in the situation than you might realise. The key is to remember that you can’t control another person.
“You may wish that you had a better dad or a cousin who is less obnoxious, but you ultimately can’t force them to behave the way you want,” Ms. Gallo said. “The only thing you really control is your reaction and your behaviour.”
Understanding what’s going on in your brain is the first step to taking back control. When you feel threatened, you’re liable to slip into what emotional intelligence experts call “amygdala hijacking” — that feeling when you’re emotionally overwhelmed and you don’t make rational choices.
If you see that in your future during family meals this holiday season, here are tips to help you maintain your composure and defuse tension at the dinner table.
Have a game plan
Pinpoint what behaviours and topics are likely to set you off. Once you do, prepare for those scenarios so you stay calm.
In a Harvard Business Review article, “Taking the Stress Out of Stressful Conversations,” the communication expert Holly Weeks counsels people to rehearse difficult conversations and fine-tune their phrasing and tone. She also recommends coming up with a few hip-pocket phrases you can use on the spot so you won’t panic in the moment when asked invasive or insensitive questions. (I nod and say, “Thanks, I’ll consider it,” when I want to shoo away unhelpful suggestions.) Ms. Gallo also recommends using a mindfulness technique called anchoring when you feel attacked: Redirect your focus to the energy in your body (deep breaths, counting fingers) rather than ruminating on negative thoughts.
Have a goal in mind
It’ll be easier to get through the meal if you know what success looks like, Ms. Gallo said. Is your objective to change your argumentative uncle’s political views? That’s unlikely to happen, sorry to say. A more realistic goal is to walk away at the end of the dinner feeling as if you were thoughtful, respectful and fair. “If you end up behaving in the way they behave,” Ms. Gallo said, “you just end up feeling bad.” If you feel yourself deviating from your plan, she recommends taking a beat to ask yourself: How will I feel about this interaction tomorrow? How will I feel about this interaction next week? And then how will I feel about this interaction next year? This perspective shift will help rein in aggressive or combative impulses.
Make small talk
Ask people questions about themselves and their personal accomplishments, the etiquette expert Elaine Swann said. She also says to arrive prepared with information you’ve learned about your relatives that they would want to share. Perhaps you can scan social media feeds beforehand to mine potential conversation fodder like recent milestones, purchases or trips. She also recommends gracefully redirecting thoughtless questions into a new conversation. “Be prepared to pivot rather than trying to go toe-to-toe with an individual to express your point or refute theirs instead,” she said. For instance, instead of answering a pointed question about your political leanings, see if you can steer the conversation into safer territory: “I’m actually more interested in hearing about the new gym you joined. Tell me about it!”
Recruit an ally
Bringing along someone who’s not really involved in a family conflict can help defuse the tension, Ms. Gallo said. Not only will this person (a significant other, a friend, even a favourite co-worker) be a support system for you, but their presence might encourage others to be on their best behaviour as well. Maybe there’s already someone in your family unit you can join forces with. “Usually there’s someone else around the dinner table or sitting around in the living room that can join you in changing the conversation or will say to you, ‘Hey, why don’t you come with me while I cut the cake?’” said Mary Foston-English, a licensed marriage and family therapist. Find that person and keep them close.
Take care of yourself
If you feel as if you’ve spread yourself too thin — agreeing to attend too many events, trying to entertain too many people — your fuse might be significantly shorter. It’s important to monitor your well-being because you’ll be better able to deal with the stressful things outside your control. Ms. Folston-English shares a concept called HALT, which stands for hungry, angry, lonely or tired, all of which are states that can make a person overreact or be irritable. Self-assess to see if you’re in any of those states before you engage with a difficult person or scenario. “The better you’re prepared both physically and mentally and emotionally, the easier it is for you to manage the stress that goes along with that,” she said.
Grab physical (or mental) space
If things are getting too heated, turn your attention to another person in attendance, or a child or pet. You can also excuse yourself and head to another part of the house or even take a few moments to step outside. If you can’t physically leave, at least give yourself time before you respond to sharp comments. “Take a pause before you react because oftentimes, we’re re-enacting roles from our childhoods,” Dr. Birditt said. “Think before you talk.” Ms. Swann also suggests keeping the evening short and sweet. If you know your family tends to get along well for the first two to three hours, then arrange to say your goodbyes before fatigue sets in.
A little light at the end of the tunnel: Dr. Birditt said relationships usually get better as we age because as we grow older, we become more invested in maintaining our close and emotionally significant ties. People don’t engage in as many negative behaviours like yelling and screaming as they age. “It could be also be experience,” she said. “You know, you get older and wiser.”
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