The seemingly inevitable family feuds endemic to “the most wonderful time of the year” can be avoided by self-regulating and communicating, says social skills coach Caroline Maguire, PCC, M.Ed., who has taught thousands of people of all ages to cultivate good relationships and communicate.
What’s more, the kids table is watching and learning how to (mis)behave based on what they observe the adults doing.
Maguire says empathy and kindness are becoming lost arts, so she teaches self-regulation: how to manage your body, mind and emotions in pursuit of a goal, which allows you to resist impulses, control your words and actions, calm yourself when you are upset, hold back a comment and resist using your fists instead of your words. It is the ability to remember your intention to be kind and then manage what you say and do so you follow through on that intention. It is an essential skill in all aspects of life and people with the ability to self-regulate are happier and achieve more of their goals. Here are some tips:
Make a List and Check It Twice
Make a list of the things your relatives, especially those on the other side of the aisle, have done for you and what they mean to you. During your holiday conversations, validate the feelings and emotions of both those you agree with and those you do not. You can say, Interesting, I hear you, that must feel hard for you. Assume and remember the best intentions of those around you. As you express your opinions, remember to focus on the kindness, compassion and respect your relatives have shown you for years, their acts of love and affection. John Gottman’s work shows that it takes 5 positive interactions to overcome one negative interaction and therefore it’s crucial to remember that what you say can damage your relationship.
Walk in Someone Else’s Shoes
Step into your relatives’ shoes and try to understand their point of view. Consider What could be going on in the other person’s life? What is the other person’s situation? What do I know about their motivation, values and intentions? Don’t make assumptions about their motivations and perspective, instead listen and reflect, reserve judgement and try to hear their point of view. You might come to find insight you did not anticipate.
Watch Your Tone and Dismissive Comments
Emotions often bubble up into our tone and our comments. Name-calling and zingers will not build a bridge to understanding. If your intention is to speak to your family with respect, take steps like breathing deeply and pausing before responding to ensure your tone remains neutral. Avoid using words like “always”, “never” and avoid bold statements to make a point. Make a plan in advance to respond to someone who does not follow this advice and may become aggressive to you, e.g. by saying “I really hope we can keep this conversation respectful,” or “I am hearing you becoming frustrated, let’s continue to try to understand each other.”
Real active listening means you are interested and you are hearing the other person’s point of view without judgement. As you speak with your family, make eye contact and check your body language and facial expressions. Try to avoid interrupting or simply listening for your chance to jump in and speak your opinion. A good exercise in advance of the holiday is to consider what speaking compassionately looks like; it means showing interest in the other person’s feelings and opinions, being curious and listening to the person so you can relieve their suffering and be a shoulder to lean on. A way to neutralize the conversation is to use reflective listening which simply involves recapping what the person said and making empathetic comments like That must be hard, or I hear you or I am hearing that this was very painful for you.
Manage Emotions Rather Than Letting Them Manage You
When you feel upset, you are flooded with emotions that often hijack your brain and affect your behavior. Be aware when you start to experience emotional flooding your body. Pay attention to your body signals, ask yourself what you typically feel in your body, stomach and face when your emotions are rising. What do you feel like when you are angry but in control, anxious, and what do you feel like when you are losing control? Do you get flushed, feel a stomachache, maybe tingle in your arms and legs? By breathing in and out, pausing before speaking, chewing slowly and mindfully, placing your feet on the ground and noticing how your legs feels and grounding yourself, you can help to use mindfulness to manage your emotions.
Don’t Try to Change Anyone’s Mind
Holidays are not for influencing or changing someone’s mind and the conversation is not meant to be a showstopper full of uncomfortable topics. Don’t try to educate or change someone’s mind. There is no need to cajole, shame, scold, coerce or try to change the mind of your family members. Instead, take the time together to ask questions to better understand their side of things; you can decide how you feel about it once the visit is over and you have some physical and emotional distance.
Return to common ground
There are often areas where you agree or where you have a mutual fondness, even if you have to reach as far back as a shared favorite movie or family memory. Reconnect with that touchstone when you need to. That can only come with listening, really hearing the perspective of another person and trying to support another.