We’ve all seen the images — the unified, smiling, perfect families in Christmas advertisements. But holiday gatherings with family can actually be fraught with conflict and disagreement … and the guilt that inevitably rises from having “ruined” what is “supposed to be” a delightful time with loved ones. Hence, I offer three helpful tips for those who are likely to encounter conflict at their family gatherings – some advice that, although not always possible to follow, will at least give you a life buoy to cling to when the conversation heads into muddy waters.
1. Aim to be reasonable, not right
Most of us enter a debate or argument wanting to convince others that we are right. However, research shows that you are very, very unlikely to change someone’s mind even if all the facts are on your side. So, instead of aiming to be the most right in a family conflict, set the intent that you are going to try to be the most reasonable. You may not get your family member to change their views (that was unlikely to happen anyway) but you are more likely to receive the approval and respect of others around you … and yourself.
2. Leave the door open for agreement
It doesn’t sit well with any of us that someone we do not respect, like, nor agree with can have any redeeming features or say anything that is right, real or valuable. Sadly, this only emboldens our own confirmation bias and undermines our ability to see the truth clearly. Whenever you can, in a family argument, work on the 5% principal: understand that, although you may oppose up to 95% of what your opponent says, you will find 5% of what they say is actually of value to you. Look for these nuggets of agreement in every interaction and have the courage to acknowledge these moments out loud. This will help disarm the conflict and allow you to remain open to other points of view.
3. Take time out
If things get really heated, don’t underestimate the power of the time out. Take yourself away from the scene — clean the kitchen, walk the dog, play catch with the kids — and reduce the amount of adrenaline and cortisol in your body. Give yourself at least 20 minutes to calm yourself down emotionally and physically before you return to the fray.
There is undeniable social pressure for us to get along with family at the holidays, and it can feel like we have failed if our familial gatherings aren’t totally harmonious or fun. But the ideal of the happy family is just that — a fictitious ideal — and it’s okay if you have to take steps to reduce conflict and stress around the festive table.
Importantly, if you know that conflict is inevitable at these gatherings, it is also okay if you choose to stay away and spend the holidays by yourself, or with those you know you can celebrate with in true unity, harmony and togetherness.
Kim Forrester is a holistic wellbeing author, consultant and educator.