I have a candy dish that reads ‘I’ll be home for Christmas… and in therapy after that.”  Some of us dread the family gathering for various reasons, including the fights over prickly topics.  Instead of avoiding difficult conversations this season, there is a strategy to embrace them and emerge unscathed with a greater connection and appreciation for those we love.  I would guess that most of us gather with friends and family that we have at least some affection toward.  Why not deepen those relationships through an exchange of ideas beyond the weird weather or talk of endless consumerism?

One of the common sayings among the younger generation is: “I feel like” and then they proceed to reveal not a feeling, but a thought.  I asked one of these young friends why she uses the term.  Her response was wonderful: “because it softens my answer.”  This “I’m not a know it all” posture will be the first in a list of ingredients for the Canadian Conversational Cocktail:  A fail-safe against a bungled communication hangover.

  1. Admit to yourself that you don’t know it all.
    In a quiet moment ask yourself the simple question:  Is there more to learn on this topic? Am I open to hearing something that amends, contradicts, or tweaks my point of view, and what would I do with that information?  There’s a range of responses of course:  we can ignore it and bulldoze the idea.  We may react with fear that we “got it wrong” and then what would that mean? Another option is to let the information steep slowly before taking small sips.  I recommend watching a movie this holiday called “The Command” I promise the lessons from this film will impact you for a life time!
  2. Ask yourself: What do I want from this relationship?
    If you only want surface contact that is a legitimate end game.  If, however, you want something deeper take the risk and lead with an interest toward the heart and mind of the other person.  If you want to dominate the relationship this article will subvert your goal, so move on.  I would suggest the book:  Leading like Atilla the Hun.  Knowing your goal will reduce stress and focus your energy where most productive.
  3. Let go of domination.
    This is a corollary to connection, and I confess it is difficult for me. Everyone loses when a relationship is broken or damaged.  We cannot claim to be a winner when we no longer speak to one another.   Ask a friend to let you know if they notice a pattern of the desire to win overtaking the goal of connecting with the person you are speaking with.  It is difficult to see ourselves as being overbearing when we are engaged in the practice of it.  Another way to let go of domination is to visualize where the conversation will take you; picture the person’s face and determine if their expression is the one you are trying to achieve if domination wins the day.
  4. Notice your feelings.
    The experiencing of anxiety or nausea or avoidance when the conversation gets heated up is a signal that something isn’t on track. Take note of negative feelings so you can make a course correction if the situation gets heated.  My daughter has found huge relief she tells me, when she names the feeling.  This takes a lot of practice. Negative feelings are a clue that things might be going south.  ‘It’s helpful for both to say: “I’m feeling” and then attempt to identify the feeling.  Ask to take a break and reconvene, or if you become emotionally regulated through the process of acknowledging your feelings, carry on. You can also notice the other person’s feelings and ask them if they are ok to continue the conversation.
  5. Make a plan to ensure that your person of interest wins by your hand.
    That could mean you send them a note of appreciation or do an errand for them. Go out of your way to show kindness and compassion. There’s an old adage:  people don’t care how much you know until they know how much care.
  6. Be curious!
    There are so many open-ended questions that will illicit more information.  Receiving someone else’s thoughts and feelings draws them into your space.  Listening well does not equal agreement, it means you have a clear enough picture of the other person to dive deeper into their perspective.  Only after a lengthy stretch of listening do we get into the heart of the other person.  This may take more than one conversation.  A gathering at Christmas may be an opportunity to invite more discussion.  We never lose when we listen well.  Some questions that are helpful:  what’s it like to? How do you feel when?  What are your thoughts on?  I want to follow up:  when you said… what did you mean by that?
  7. Set the stage for peace.
    I mean low lighting, well prepared, warm food, warm drinks, pillows.  An atmosphere of warmth and welcome will go a long way to develop closeness.  Many of these things are done automatically as part of tradition without even realizing how they impact mood and set the stage for connection.  Taking someone’s coat when they walk through the door signals a desire that they stay a while.  Imagine how the person you are in conflict would feel if they were treated with this kind of respect and care.
  8. Limit alcohol.
    It’s a well -known fact among my circle of friends that I cannot drink.  If you end up apologizing for your behavior after alcohol consumption, cut it out of your life sister!

Please share your ingredients to add to this holiday cocktail.  I’ll be sure to post them and if you would be vulnerable enough to share your stories from the holiday, I will post them as well:  the good, the bad and the ugly. I will do the same; I’m already working on mending a bad situation that I contributed to last Christmas.

I wish you all a joyful season:  As the angel announced, I repeat the sounding joy: “Peace on Earth and good will toward all.”