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Navigating tricky relationships during the holidays – Harvard Health Blog


Are you counting down the days until you find yourself face-to-face with certain family members or friends who know exactly where your buttons lie and push them, repeatedly? While we all long for an abundance of good cheer, an overflow of ready affection, and easy conversations, handling challenging relationships during the holidays can trip up even the best-intentioned. So, how to navigate the gatherings ahead?

Simple tips to help you navigate

Here are some simple tips to keep in mind:

Prepare. Sometimes we can avoid what we fear by anticipating and accepting what is. Why would Aunt Bertha be any different this year than last? Why set yourself up for disappointment or frustration? Identifying one or two traits that you appreciate about her (okay, one) can help you adopt an attitude of tolerance in your interactions.

Let awareness and acceptance lead to useful action. What kind of time are you willing to spend with those you find most challenging? Do you get along best with one sibling while doing the dishes together at the end of the meal? Is an after-dinner walk the best way to engage with another? Group versus one-on-one time? Think ahead about when and how you want to engage with others, then look for those opportunities.

Be curious. We can’t always control the conversations that arise, especially around the dinner table. Uh-oh, who just brought up politics? If there’s genuine curiosity about others’ points of view, the conversation may be terrific. But being curious takes a willingness to not be right and to listen simply to understand. Listening takes the discipline and desire to stay in the moment without formulating your rebuttal while another person is talking. It also takes a kind of humility to recognize that you might learn something new. And if you don’t think that’s possible — for you or for others — sometimes a simple “no politics” (or “no whatever-is-too-controversial”) rule is helpful with challenging relationships.

Redirect. And what about the 27th retelling of a hackneyed family story, maybe even one where you — or someone else — come out looking a little worse for wear? Intentional, light-hearted interruption and redirection may be just what’s needed. Keep the focus on the speaker to minimize the potential that they will feel slighted. “That was a horrid day at the beach. Did I hear you’re planning a trip to Spain in February?”

Time for a difficult conversation?

Carpe diem. When we live far from others, we sometimes need to seize the rare in-person moment to talk about challenging matters. A few words of guidance:

  • Give your intended recipient advance notice. “When we get together, I’d really like to talk about the argument we had at Thanksgiving so that we can do better in the future.”
  • Find the right time and place for your conversation. Try to ensure you’ll have enough time to talk things through.
  • Take responsibility for your contributions to a problem. An apology, when sincere, can go a long way.
  • Frame your concerns in neutral, non-blaming language. Try leading with “I” instead of what often sounds like an accusatory “you.” “I felt really betrayed when I found out you told Joe I lost my job,” versus “You are so untrustworthy, telling Joe I lost my job when you promised to keep it confidential.”
  • You’ve got two ears and one mouth. Reflect that ratio in how you use them. Listen twice as hard for feelings and concerns, and speak to acknowledge what the other person shared.
  • Stay focused on your goals. If you’re clear that your goals are mutual understanding, resolution, and harmony, your intentions will help guide your actions and keep you on track.

Be the light

As much as you might wish to choreograph a perfect holiday gathering — who doesn’t? — you probably know deep down that the only person you can control is yourself. With awareness, preparation, and discipline, you can, in fact, be the light no matter what else is swirling around you. And when all else fails, there’s always refuge behind the locked bathroom door on the second floor.

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