Avoiding Family Conflict
Avoiding Family Conflict
Dear Tacit,

Conversations can sometimes get a little tense when everyone in my family comes together over the holidays.  Any suggestions for how to keep things light and positive?

Signed: Avoiding Family Conflict Over The Holidays

Dear Avoiding Family Conflict Over The Holidays,

Family get-togethers of any kind can certainly end in disaster if even just one person takes things a little too far.  Sometimes, it’s because there are lots of libations being shared and people are not actually making as much sense as they think they are.  Other times, it’s just because there are so many different opinions gathered in the same room together.  Over the holidays especially, people can occasionally forget the basic rules of how to be respectful as they speak their minds freely with one another.  And opposing comments can often become offensive.  The initially smooth flow of joy and connection felt at the start of a family event can quickly take a wavy turn.  And the holiday season can be one of the most challenging times to try to navigate these rough waters.

We cannot control what others might decide to say or do.  But we can control what we are willing to listen to or to engage in.  We have to make those choices based on our own mental wellbeing.  Ideally, we hope to be able to leave a family gathering feeling better than we arrived.  At the very least, we certainly do not want to feel worse, and end up not speaking to people for weeks afterward.  So, the best suggestion I have is to try to focus on yourself and the things you can do to make the conversation go smoother for your own needs (rather than giving too much energy to what others might be saying or feeling).

Here are a few ways to help you be able to do this:

Prepare yourself ahead of time.  Think of some safe and appropriate conversation starters that you feel are fun or peaceful in nature.  Make sure these talking points are fairly inclusive and will invite others to join in (perhaps try conversations about shows that people might watch; or a hobby/interest that a number of others enjoy).

Asking a question that elicits helpful and well-meaning responses from others is also a great way to go. As is bringing up happy memories from years gone by.  People love to tell entertaining stories, over and over again.  You can prompt the story-tellers in the group for a few of these great memories, any time the conversation is lagging or heading into dangerous waters.

Be ready to employ a few key ways to effectively redirect conversations that might be heading off the rails (before they get too awful).  We sometimes call these neutralizing statements.  They would be comments you can make that do not denote any agreement or disagreement, but rather a gentle way to end the discussion and launch a new one.  (You might say something like, “Oh, that’s an interesting way to look at things” or “We are going to need a little time to think about that” or “I never considered it from that perspective before” and then gently but firmly change the subject.)

If you find yourself quite anxious in these tense situations, try rehearsing before you go to the event in anticipation of what you might need to say to steer things in the direction you feel is more appropriate.  If you have practiced the wording and the tone/inflection of your redirect, ahead of time, you will likely feel more confident speaking up in the moment.

One of the best ways to avoid deep, heated conversations is to keep things light and entertaining at family gatherings.  Do a little research and be prepared to suggest a game or an amusing pastime that the majority of the group might be willing to do (it’s absolutely okay if a few people bow out – don’t take it personally, and don’t try to push for them to join if they don’t want to – allow people to just be the audience if they wish).  Take some of these activities outdoors, if possible (it’s a great way to cool down tempers that might be spiking).  These activities could include games, songs, taking turns having everyone share their reasons for love and gratitude, a snowball fight or some sledding, etc.

Be ready for the possibility of upsetting moments.  Step away and utilize some grounding or self-soothing techniques that help you re-centre on yourself and on happier parts of the evening, when you feel yourself being triggered.  Connect with your friends or safe family members after the event and debrief what you were feeling, so you don’t end up stuffing those emotions and carrying them with you much longer than is necessary.

And remember that it is always okay to politely decline an invitation to any event – even a family gathering – if you just don’t feel you have the energy to attend and stay positive.  Overextending yourself (emotionally, physically or mentally) usually ends in disaster.  You can prevent this by simply being aware of your own needs and wants, and making those your top priority.

Take care!

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