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Managing Conflict Effectively During the Holidays!

(Originally published December 17, 2019)

Conflict and the Holidays

It’s the holidays! Actually it’s been the holidays for a while now, but we’re coming into the home stretch, that mad, frenetic time when people race around to buy gifts, do or host holiday parties, and prepare to spend time with far-flung family and friends -

The holidays have historically been challenging for me. As much as I love my family we have a long history of difficult holidays, and it has taken some work to get the holiday season to be something less stressful than it used to be.

Experience tells me two things about the holidays: 1) I’m not the only person who has challenges when it comes to the holiday season and 2) much of that difficulty is the risk of having unwanted and uncomfortable conflict with people close to us during the holidays.

Today’s post is a brief discussion about discretion really is the better part of valor, at least when it comes to dealing with family, friends and conflict at this too-often challenging time of the year.

Why Can the Holidays be So Dang Difficult Anyway?

It’s supposed to be a happy, joyous season, right? Trees and tinsel, carols and gifts, Hanukkah candles and cozy nights by the fire, etc. But it’s no secret that lots of us wrestle with murky, scratchy, even unhappy holiday times.

Some of it, in my humble opinion, is the sheer burden of expectations we put on the holiday season. It HAS to be happy, joyful, stress-free, warm, conflict-free… in other words, perfect. Perfect gifts, perfect gatherings, perfect parties, perfect everything. Anytime of the year would be challenging if we put this much of a burden on it…

And it isn’t like the rest of our lives go on hold in December. We’re still working, still managing families, still stressing over the bills (and let’s just crank that up in December and well into January), etc.

Put simply, the holidays can become an enormous source of stress IF we’re not thinking clearly about what we’re potentially doing to ourselves at this time of year. To add insult to injury all that stress tends to stress our relationships as well.

Somebody Get Me an Advil, Please…

The holidays, in some respects, can present unique challenges for healthy communication/conflict management. Here’s a sample:

Long histories and unresolved older conflicts: we wade into December and time with people we often don’t see more than once or twice a year. Just because it’s Christmas or Hanukkah or whatever holiday we’re celebrating doesn’t mean that old rifts and remembered battles magically go away, especially if those rifts and battles remain festering in the present.

No good negotiated rules for conflict: As I’ve mentioned in other blog posts this year healthy conflict needs some boundaries and rules. 95% of us never learned that and don’t have those tools/skills in place – then the holidays come and, if we’re not careful, we’re back in the arena with no gloves and no referee.

Emotions running high: Take one holiday, mix it with incredible (impossible?) expectations, add in long-simmering and unaddressed problems, and presto – you have a charged emotional climate at your festive gathering. Doesn’t that sound great? A visit that in February might just be a little uncomfortable can become fraught with risk at this time of year, at least in our thinking.

Anxiety about “ruining the holidays”: As if all this wasn’t enough we can get caught up in worrying about not being the source of additional holiday stress for ourselves or other people. “Just get along, please?” might almost be a holiday mantra, however we feel. And while I’m not advocating that you start a brawl on Christmas Eve it can be debilitating to put on a happy face when you’re defensive, hurt or just plain uncomfortable.

What to Do With All of This?

Here are some humble recommendations to help ease your holiday tensions:

1. Give yourself a break. Grant yourself permission to have a mortal, ordinary human holiday season, rather than a perfect one. Crazy, I know, but extremely healthy thinking.

2. Take care of yourself. Just because you’re visiting family or friends doesn’t mean you have to spend every waking moment with them! It’s OK to draw a small and healthy boundary around how you manage your time. I argue that drawing boundaries is one of the healthiest things we can do during the holiday season. Someone else being a little (or even a lot) frustrated that you’re not in proximity every minute, in the short term, might be just fine if it means you diminish the chances of a holiday blow-up or have a fight you’re not prepared to have. Three peaceful hours beats ten unhappy ones, yes?

3. Remind yourself that they are stressing as well. That doesn’t mean that you should put up with abusive or hurtful behavior on their part, but it can help keep the lid on the pot of our frustration if we keep in mind that you’re ALL in the pot, and that this holiday is part of the problem. So much of unproductive conflict is reactive. In fact these first three recommendations are primarily about giving ourselves maximum space TO be in our proactive, rational brain, rather than in our reactive hindbrain, so you’re less likely to fall into the unwanted conflict vortex.

4. Remember that conflict isn’t evil in itself! Let’s say despite your best intentions you find yourself in a difficult conversation at the holidays. It isn’t the end of the world, however it feels in the moment. Some things to keep in mind when and if that happens:

a) You’re not obligated to continue fighting – you can call it quits unilaterally and excuse yourself. Really. We call it a timeout, and it’s always legal.

b) You can take command of the situation by becoming, briefly, the world’s best listener, simply taking in and reflecting back what you’re hearing. It’s pretty amazing. You don’t have to do mea culpa or take responsibility for that other person’s rage or hurt – although owning your share is never a bad idea – but you can just LISTEN. It’s remarkable how much that can do to defuse a fight.

Happy Holidays!

Sadly, in these days of high-pressure, high-performance and high-stress living, the holidays are, too often, NOT a time of relaxing. May you, however, make space for yourself to unwind and breathe, here at the end of 2019. See you in 2020!


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