Holiday Hostility Helpers

Many of us will be observing a variety of holidays in the coming month. This often means gatherings and, even amongst the closest families and friend groups, some tension as popular yet uncomfortable topics arise.

With that, we offer some advice via Heidi Godman, Executive Editor of the Harvard Health Letter.

  1. Recognize Vulnerability Factors: Some things predispose us to arguing. Common factors include financial worries that are more pronounced at the holidays, colder and darker climates, tracking modified work and school schedules, painful memories and reminders of loss, as well as behavioral factors like alcohol consumption. Gillis recommends recognizing your vulnerabilities and mitigating what you can while working toward coping with things beyond your control through regular self-care.
  2. Plan Ahead: Gillis offers three ways to prepare ahead of time if arguments are possible. These include:
    • Set a time limit: If you’re hosting the event, let your guests know in advance what time the festivities will end.
    • Ask for help: To help you rein in reactivity, ask someone you trust to give you a sign if a conversation appears to be risky or escalating.
    • Schedule breaks: Think about when and how you’ll be able to take breaks during a gathering. This gives you an opportunity to check in with your emotions.
    • Prepare words of deflection: If you know loved ones might ask questions that will lead to conflict, have a prepared answer and practice it. “Make a statement acknowledging the person’s feelings and letting them know it’s best for the topic to change,” Gillis says. He suggests using a version of the following statement. “I appreciate your thoughts, but let’s talk about something we agree on or share.”
  3. Learn to De-escalate:
    • Don’t take the bait: Don’t answer nosy questions if you don’t want to. “Change the subject. Move the focus back onto the other person and ask how they’re doing,” Gillis says. And if someone asks a loaded question (such as, “I suppose you voted for that candidate?”), use humor if appropriate (“Let’s talk about the Bruins instead”) and change the subject or the activity.
    • Adjust your mindset: “We have to accept that there are perspectives we don’t like and that engaging in conflict isn’t likely to change anyone’s perspective,” Gillis says. “You can choose not to participate in an unhealthy conversation.”
    • Respond with kindness: “If someone is angry with you, that suggests they really care what you think. Remember that and try to maintain a compassionate stance and response,” Gillis advises.
    • Remember why you’re there: The goal of the gathering is celebrating, not solving painful or controversial issues. “It’s the holiday. It doesn’t have to be the day when everyone puts their cards on the table to work out problems,” Gillis says. “Make it festive and enjoyable so you can feel that you created a pleasant holiday memory together.”