Fighting During the Holidays

Are you dreading seeing that one family member you can’t stand? Preparing to go toe-to-toe with loved ones on all the invasive questions you just know they’re going to ask? Have to come clean to your partner about some excessive holiday spending?

The holidays are stressful, y’all. Though we often claim that this is a season of cheer, joy, gratitude, and giving, the reality is often long lines, delayed traffic, crowds, financial burdens, and uncomfortable conversations with family and friends. Maybe you’ve put off having difficult or delicate conversations and are now realizing how challenging it will be to continue tip-toeing around them during the holidays. Maybe you’re just ready to move past conflict. Or maybe you want to take this time to choose a healthier approach to the conflicts you may have with a loved one. In this post I’ll provide some tips for navigating conflict during the holidays.

“Speak when you are angry and you will make the best speech you will ever regret.” Ambrose Bierce

Respond, don’t react.

There are several different ways to move from a reaction, which is often a knee-jerk impulsive statement or action, to a response which is more thoughtful.

Consider this. You are running late to Thanksgiving dinner because traffic was terrible. There was a multi-vehicle accident on the interstate which reduced all the holiday traffic down to one lane. You show up, irritated and stressed and your mom immediately says “Finally! I never thought you’d make it. Think at this point you would’ve learned to leave on time. Dinner is cold and probably ruined now.” What kind of reaction might you have to this kind of welcome? How might you better respond?

Stop and think.

Before you react to your mom’s statement about your late arrival with a defensive rebuttal, consider a more thoughtful response. For example:

  • “I’m sorry I’m late. There was a terrible accident, but I’m glad everyone in our family is safe. Thank you for waiting for me.”

  • “I’m sorry I’m late. Thank you for waiting to start dinner until I got here; it means a lot to me that you were willing to do that.”

  • “I’m sorry, mom. I love you. I wish I had been here on time. Dinner might be cold, but since you cooked it I know it’s going to be absolutely delicious!”

Choose your battles.

Not everything needs to be a fight, competition, or debate. It’s okay to let things go. We call this a “temporary avoidance” or a “strategic avoidance.” Not every issue is worth your energy. So when your grandmother criticizes your beautifully dyed blue hair or new tattoo, instead of reacting or responding, you can simply change the subject. Ask about her water aerobics class, new neighbors, or if she wants a cup of coffee or slice of pie. Chat about the presents everyone is getting or whatever else you’re curious about.

Reflectively listen.

When someone gets angry, they often want to know that other people hear what they’re upset about. Anger often derives from a place of pain, hurt, loss, fear, or even sadness. These are emotions that are worth acknowledging so that person knows they are seen and heard. Consider this the next level-up from “respond, don’t react.” Here, you are responding in an active and reflective way to acknowledge what the other person is saying. The key is to stay calm, use calm body language that’s non-combative, let that person express their feelings, and then reflect those emotions and the content of their message back to them. Let’s say your uncle is angry with you for being late to Thanksgiving (to continue with the example from before): “I can’t believe you’d be late! Your mother worked so hard to put this together this year! What is wrong with you? Why can’t you act like an adult? It’s very disrespectful to be late.”

  • “I’m sorry I was late, Uncle. It sounds like being late upset you and that you expect more from me.”

  • “The fact that I was late upset you because it was disrespectful to mom and you expect more from me.”

Focus on the problem.

We often resort to name-calling or blaming others when something goes wrong. It’s always “their fault.” This is obviously unhelpful. Name-calling or blaming others (a form of criticism) shifts the focus from you to the other person, who will now become defensive in response to your name-calling! When your mom criticizes you for being late you could react by attacking her, for example: “Mom, you’re not even a good cook. It doesn’t matter that I was late!” This is not going to end well for anybody. Instead, you could try:

  • “I’m sorry that I was late. I didn’t anticipate the traffic. Next time I’ll try to drive in the night before a holiday, after work, instead of waiting until the holiday to leave.” There’s a clear “call to action” here for yourself to attack (solve) the problem, rather than to attack the person.

Similarly, if grandma criticizes your brilliant blue hair, you might be tempted to react to her and not the problem. For example:

Grandma: “Why’d you have to go and dye your beautiful blonde hair blue? I don’t understand why you have to ruin your good looks doing stuff like that.”

You: “Grandma, you’re so old and out of touch. You always have to criticize me!”

Hopefully you can see how unproductive this conversation will become. Instead, consider focusing on the problem and practicing some avoidance at the same time. For example:

  • “Grandma, I know you don’t care for the way I style my hair and I respect that. Maybe it’s just a generational difference. Can we just agree to disagree?”

  • “It’s cool that you don’t like my hair, but do you know you’re still my favorite Grandma? Come on, let’s enjoy our holiday together!”

Lower expectations.

There’s a reason I didn’t start with this one, folks. Nobody wants to hear this! You are never going to have the perfect relationship that never ever has a disagreement. That’s incredibly unrealistic. Many conflicts can remain relatively low-level by practicing the techniques mentioned above though. Conflict can range from something high-intensity (heated disagreements, lawsuits) to low-intensity (mild disagreements). Don’t be afraid to have a disagreement with someone that results in a lively conversation. These are opportunities, not obstacles!

Conflict is an opportunity.

When we have a conflict with someone, especially when it’s with someone we love, it’s an opportunity to learn about the other person. You get to ask questions based on genuine curiosity (not to try and attack them or find holes in their logic). When you ask questions based on learning more about a loved one you can deepen your relationship with that person, learn more about them, maybe find some unexpected areas of agreement or alignment, and begin building or establishing trust.

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