When it comes to family and the holidays, even Rudolph had trouble keeping the peace with the other reindeer during the merriest time of the year.
So how about we get proactive this year and learn a few ways to disarm the verbal landmines before they detonate? Preparing for, and successfully handling, family conflict is an excellent way to teach our children how to do the same. And, the way you treat your spouse, your in-laws, and extended family will likely be the standard your kids adopt.
A few relationship ground rules:
- Know what you control. You can’t control other people; you can only control yourself. So, don’t waste time or energy getting fumed about things out of your hands. Getting frustrated with people who live, act, or express themselves differently than you do is like getting mad at the rain for falling. You have no control so smile politely, and let it go.
- Listening equals love. If it’s your goal to show love to the people around you this holiday, one of the simplest, most powerful things you can do is simply listen to them. Everyone has a story, and everyone longs to be recognized and affirmed in a family or group setting. Honor and love the people around you by genuinely listening to their stories. Often when people feel heard and loved, they will be less likely to start a conflict or slip into negative family patterns.
- Let go of being right. Sometimes a small comment can ignite an inferno and quickly polarize family members. Keep in mind that being right isn’t the goal at an annual family gathering. Time is short and time with family is precious and walking away as the “winner” in a situation won’t’ always feel like the victory you imagined.
- Consider the bigger picture. While laughter may fill the air, the holidays bring an undercurrent of fatigue, anxiety, even depression for some. When people gather, so do their personal stresses, memories (both good and bad), and health issues. Showing empathy and compassion for everyone around you will go a long way toward avoiding conflict and creating a positive experience.
- Assume the best in others. It’s easy to expect the people around you to be the same each time you convene. However, if you take the time to challenge old assumptions, you may see that along with your personal growth, others have also evolved in some areas. Expect the best, look for the positives, and celebrate the unique things about your family. It’s true: You can usually find the exact thing you set out to find in others — so this year, look for the best in others.
- Avoid sarcasm. Use humor in its highest form and avoid the temptation of aiming those snarky arrows. Responding with phrases such as “That’s ridiculous!” “That’s B.S.” or “Did you really just say that out loud?” will put others on the defensive. Your funny isn’t always another person’s funny and your tone can carry daggers.
- Smile. Laugh. Move on. ‘Tis the season for eye rolling and heavy sighs, right? Body language plays a big role in the life cycle of an argument. A smile will disarm an angry person just as throwing in some random humor (well-timed!) can also help. So, the next time your mom blurts out that your teenager is addicted to SnapChat and should go play stickball in the street like all the other kids, just infuse some random humor with something like, “Hey mom, come here and tell me if this mole looks weird to you.”
Consider the following phrases to be your mental life line over the holidays — even write them on your hand and use them as a cheat sheet if necessary. You may be surprised how a few choice words, aptly placed in a conversation, can change the vibe of an entire day.
7 phrases that will help you keep the peace:
- “That’s interesting.” You can bet Aunt Fran’s pecan pie on the fact that politics will likely come up over this holiday. Resolve beforehand to listen to all points of view without interrupting. If asked your opinion or if you are trying to hold your tongue, using this phrase, will help you avoid any hand-to-hand combat with your brother-in-law. This small, powerful phrase can apply to big topics like politics and religion or more trivial things such as your mother-in-law teaching you the correct way to shuck corn.
- “Who would like to help me with this?” Who hasn’t felt put out and overworked at one time during a gathering? Rather than fume in the kitchen and curse Aunt Gertie’s burnt casserole dish, simply walk into the party room and ask for the help you need in an energetic, welcoming tone. You will have more helping hands than you can handle.
- “I love your passion, how about some ice cream?” If nephew Tyler is heading into his third Slideshare presentation on global warming or the newlyweds are trying to get the family to take sides over their latest spat, stop the madness in its tracks. Offer a positive comment and change the topic or even the location. Interrupting with ice cream isn’t actually considered interrupting, right?
- “I see where you’re coming from.” This phrase is magic. It tells the other person immediately that you are engaged, listening, and validating their opinion (even if you strongly disagree). Another way of saying this is “Good point,” or “I never thought of it that way,” or, “That makes sense.” Dale Carnegie, author of How to Win Friends and Influence People, says it like this: “I don’t blame you one iota for feeling as you do. If I were you, I would undoubtedly feel just as you do.”
- “I’m sorry you are upset.” If someone brings up the past, becomes irritated about a situation, or is insistent on arguing, simply acknowledge their pain. Empathize with the person’s feelings. Often people are not seeking to argue they just long to be understood on an issue that means a lot to them. Connecting to and validating another person’s pain (or passion) is one way to keep an argument from escalating.
- “I’m sorry. Will you forgive me?” Isn’t this usually the last phrase we think to use in a tense moment? Most likely because owning a wrong isn’t easy and saying it requires a huge chunk of humility. Ironically, it is the very phrase that can bring instant peace to the moment. Asking forgiveness is different than saying “I’m sorry.” The phrase “I’m sorry,” means you are taking responsibility for a wrong comment, behavior, or choice. Taking the extra step to ask “Will you forgive me?” tells the person hurt that you are seeking to restore the brokenness of the relationship and that power now rests in their hands.
- “I’m going for a walk.” When things get heated, we feel trapped and quickly forget that we have full control over our geography. So, opt to take a walk. Getting some fresh air, clearing your head, and ushering in calm thoughts will quickly buffer and improve a tense family moment.
The holidays will be as merry or as miserable as you decide they will be. So get proactive and even take the opportunity to practice before the crowds arrive. Pay attention to your emotions, your tone, your responses with neighbors, colleagues, and friends. These days will go quickly and memories with family — as wonderful and imperfect as yours may be — truly are irreplaceable.
Toni Birdsong is a Family Safety Evangelist to McAfee. You can find her on Twitter @McAfee_Family and @ToniBirdsong. (Disclosures).
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