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Conquering Conflict During the Holidays

  • Posted by: Ellen Kandell

The holidays are approaching, and many of us encounter some level of anxiety during these two months. Family conflicts occur because typically your family knows which buttons to push and which topics to broach to cause an argument. Nearly every family has at least one person who likes to stir the pot in this way. According to Chris Logan, a senior lecturer in psychology at Southern Methodist University, we all have a tendency to focus on small differences between ourselves and family members as well as focus on past hurts or negative memories. This makes the holidays difficult, as unconsciously focusing on past hurts or differences between us may lead to passive-aggressive behavior, annoyance, or a sense of dissatisfaction. In this post, we’ll explore some strategies for dealing with family conflicts this holiday season.

Avoid Hot Button Topics

This seems like an obvious suggestion, but it bears mentioning. Avoid discussing hot button topics whenever possible. If your goal is to go through this season without engaging in an argument with family or close friends, then do what you can to stay away from topics such as finances, politics, unfortunate news in the media, or controversial issues. It may be more difficult this year to refrain from discussing politics, considering the proximity and divisiveness of this election, but it may be wise to steer clear of this subject depending on your family’s political leanings. What may be an acceptable topic to you may be a hot spot for someone else, and you could instigate a conflict without intending to.

Breathe and Be Mindful

If you find yourself becoming stressed, aggravated, or in the middle of a conflict, take a mental step back. Take deep breaths to start calming down. Research has shown that deep breathing affects the nervous system and causes our brains and bodies to calm down very quickly. It may even be possible to retrain the body’s responses to stress and anxiety over time by breathing deeper.

Another technique is mindfulness. In short, this means to be present or in the moment—rather than fiddling with your cell phone, keeping one eye on the television, or attempting to do multiple tasks at once, be mindful this season. By being present during family time over the holidays, you are more likely to avoid a potential argument. When you are mindful, you will notice subtle cues in conversation, tone of voice, and even your own signals that it may be time to take a break from talking with a particular person for a few minutes. Mindfulness allows you to better interpret all the little signals coming from your friends and family, and the better you are at seeing these signals, the more successful you can be at heading off arguments before they begin.

Our emotions are intensified in conflict situations, and our tendency towards reactiveness (and away from mindfulness) heightens. Perfect mindfulness would keep a disagreement from escalating into conflict, but life can blindside us and catch us off balance, especially when we are under pressure at home or work. Thus once you find yourself caught up in conflict, the mindfulness you practiced earlier might help you keep it from worsening, but you may not be able to call on the mindfulness that is necessary to sort it out. It’s not an expression of failure to recognize that – in fact, it would be a mindful observation to see that communication has really fallen through and that you and your fellow disputant(s) might need to take a step away or gain a new perspective.

Set Boundaries

Are you really annoyed with that person, or have you simply taken on too much and the tasks have become overwhelming. During the holidays, it’s easy to fall into the trap of agreeing to do it all, but that can cause its own stress. Taking on too much can be a very acute source of stress. Choose how you arrange your time and pick which tasks you are able to do rather than letting the stress dictate your schedule. When you identify tasks that you would not be able to do, see if you can delegate and ask someone else to help with the workload. Rather than having one person or one family group cook all the food, for instance, have a potluck and everyone brings a dish for the holiday meal.

Preparing for the holidays by formulating strategies to deal with conflict can help you have a more enjoyable holiday season. Whether you’re the host or a guest, you can help yourself and everyone have a great holiday by utilizing some or all of the suggestions above. Do you have other strategies for family holidays? Leave a comment below with your best conflict management strategy.



Ellen F. Kandell is a certified professional mediator and attorney with over 30 years of public and private sector experience.  Ellen is certified by the International Mediation Institute. She became chair of MCDR’s certification committee this year.  She provides mediation, group facilitation and training to diverse, national clients. Get in touch with her via email, LinkedIn, Twitter, or give her a call at 301-588-5390.

Author: Ellen Kandell

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