The Stress of Holiday Dinners
For many, however, the holiday season is daunting, and the prospect of forced conversations with “difficult” family members can be a source of anxiety.
For several years, I have led a class on skillful engagement in conflict for the City of Seattle’s “People’s Academy for Community Engagement” (PACE). I have also held pre-holiday workshops in my community to try to ease the apprehension surrounding difficult conversations during the holidays.
A Handful of Tools
There are a multitude of ways in which to analyze, assess, and address conflict. Here are a few practical skills that you can put to use immediately.
1. What are Your “Triggers”?
It is nearly impossible to have a civil conversation when someone feels backed into a corner. In my PACE classes, I ask my students to identify their personal triggers. These can range widely, from feeling dismissed to outright slurs. What they all have in common is that they result in a physical and/or emotional response that makes further dialogue difficult.
So what are the kinds of behaviors or comments that make you angry, drive you to tears, make the blood rush to your head, or make you want to run away or scream? Becoming aware of what sets you off is the first step in developing a strategy to mitigate your fight or flight instincts.
2. Active Listening
I have written about active listening before; it is one of the most powerful tools at our disposal when navigating conflict. Instead of thinking about how to respond or how to frame your argument, take a moment to truly listen. The goal is not necessarily agreement, but rather understanding.
Do the words you hear mean the same thing to you as to the other person? What is going on beneath the express meaning of those words? Can you identify the other person’s underlying emotions, needs, and interests? Name them out loud – it is astonishing how quickly anger and frustration dissipate when someone feels that they have been heard.
3. Open-Ended Questions
Lawyers are well-versed in the art of cross-examination. Closed or leading questions that demand a “yes” or “no” answer are our forte. There is good reason for this: In questioning an opposing party or hostile witness, our goal is to box them in and shape the story to persuade a judge or jury that our clients should win.
But is it your goal to box in your conversation partner at the dinner table? Winning the argument may make you feel good in the moment – and it may lead to further resentment, making the next conversation even more challenging.
Open-ended questions invite a longer answer and create an opportunity to expand the narrative, reach greater levels of understanding, and find potential common ground. A simple trick is to use “W” questions: “What?”, “When?”, “Where?”, “Who?”, and “How?”, as opposed to “Didn’t you…? “Have you …?” etc.
Be Kind to Yourself
Full disclosure: It is far easier for me to help others navigate conflict than it is for me to address conflict in my own life. Much of the training I have received and provided as a student of psychology, as a mediator, arbitrator, and facilitator, and as a trainer and teacher seemingly evaporates when I find myself in conflict. (My husband can attest to this.)
So above else, be kind to yourself this holiday season. Practice these skills – they do improve with practice! – but remember to take the time to enjoy yourself, whatever that may mean for you.