It’s the most wonderful time of the year—that is, until family members start picking each other apart over petty problems. Angela Mitakidis, a lawyer and dispute resolution faculty member at the SMU Center for Dispute Resolution and Conflict Management at SMU-in-Plano, offers these tips on how to stop the silliness—and actually enjoy being together. As your family gathers around the table this holiday season, keep these tips in mind for stopping family fights.
Sure, it might be the most wonderful time of the year, but the holidays aren’t always happy for everyone. For some, they are a reminder of loss or sadness. If someone responds negatively, give the benefit of the doubt and extend grace and mercy, despite an unpleasant comment.
Respond, don’t react.
Reacting is the knee-jerk defense to an attack. Instead, respond with a kind act. You can offer to get someone a refill of their eggnog, or even rest a gentle hand on their shoulder. Says Mitakidis: “The best way to disarm a caustic attack is with a kind gesture.”
Focus on the good things.
There is so much to be happy for during the holidays. So even if your aunt is driving you up a wall, try diverting the focus from an unpleasant discussion to the common joy, fun and gratitude that comes with the holidays. That can help to de-escalate heightened emotions in conflict.
Validate the person’s feelings.
If someone is upset, it’s important to acknowledge (and not dismiss) their feelings. saying something as simple as: “It sounds like that situation hurt you a lot,” can sometimes be enough to help the person feel better. Remember, whether an emotion is justified or not, that person is experiencing that emotion at that moment. By making them feel heard—and not judged—the person will relaxe and the escalation of conflict is curtailed.
Find the common need.
Everyone shares the universal need to feel loved, cared for, valued and wanted—even the person who seems set on upsetting everyone. Instead of alienating that person, include him or her in a lighthearted holiday activity, like handing out gifts or judging the ugliest Christmas sweater contest. Make them feel included and they’ll soon forget their complaints.
Learn to laugh.
It’s hard to stay angry around lighthearted people. Plan fun things in advance, like watching a funny video or playing a game that gets everyone giggling. Humor is good for the soul.
Forgive when possible.
When all is said and done—and a relative still manages to inflict that verbal jab—forgive and let it go. After all, forgiveness has many benefits, including a sense of release, relief and freedom for the forgiver. And if all else fails, just keep in mind that after the get-together is over, you won’t have to see that relative…until next year, that is.