How to Avoid Conflict with These 5 Traditional Holiday Grinches Whether it's arguments about politics or you're asked, again, when you're having kids; use the following tips to defuse fights and enjoy the holiday season. BY GEOFFREY TUMLIN
Diffuse the regular holiday arguments this year, especially if you know they're coming.
“ When you get right down to it, most holiday arguments are pointless and counterproductive: Do Uncle Billy’s politics really matter?”
Does the following holiday scenario sound familiar?
Aunt Sally and Uncle Billy show up at your house for Thanksgiving dinner. Before the turkey comes out of the oven, Aunt Sally criticizes you about your cooking and cleaning and deflates your holiday spirit. Uncle Billy then spoils the holiday dinner—again—by picking political fights with everyone at the table. Later, your cousin Connie corners you in the kitchen and discloses way too much information about her personal life, while your other cousin Mike embarrasses you by asking why you haven’t been promoted yet. Meanwhile, your father-in-law drives you nuts with his unsolicited career advice. It seems, once again, like this year’s holiday season will be awash with irritating and/or awkward moments courtesy of your beloved relatives.
If the above scenario hits a little too close to home, you’re not alone. For many of us, spending time in close quarters with people who push our buttons is what comes with the holiday territory. Unfortunately, the comments we must fend off from the holiday Grinches in our lives can easily lead to volatile interactions.
We want joy and peace during the holidays, but we often end up with frustration and conflict. It’s no surprise that 24 percent of respondents to a recent Consumer Reports poll admit that seeing a few certain relatives make them dread the holidays. But it doesn’t have to be this way. The holidays are the worst time of year for strife and anxiety because we’re supposed to be celebrating and strengthening our most important relationships. It’s up to us to prevent holiday irritants and challenging family members from hijacking our good cheer.
When you get right down to it, most holiday arguments are pointless and counterproductive: Do Uncle Billy’s politics really matter? So what if our father-in-law gives us questionable career advice or a cousin asks us awkward questions? And why should Aunt Sally’s cooking critiques get under our skin so much?
We make two errors when we react to irritating people at the holidays. First, we escalate a frustrating or awkward moment into a damaging one. And second, we erroneously magnify the influence of people who really aren’t much of a factor in our daily lives.
The following are a few ideas for ducking unnecessary arguments with five common types of holiday Grinches, whom you might encounter during one of this year’s holiday gatherings.
The Constant Critic Aunt Sally finds fault with the way you run your household…and so much more.
The holidays provide a target-rich environment for critics: The cooking, the cleaning, the kids, your house and more are on display. But even the most persistent critic loses interest when his or her jabs don’t get a response.
Critics want to get a rise out of you, so thoughtless reactions are counterproductive because they give the critic exactly what they want. The most effective way to discourage a critic is to withhold a response. Take a breath, say nothing, and let it go. Silence reduces the motivation of a critic much more than a visible response. For your own proof, look no farther than last year.
You’ve probably already tried reacting by jabbing back at a critic, and that didn’t work because your sharp jab likely triggered her right hook and further escalation. So why not try the opposite approach this year? Don’t fuel a critic’s tank by giving her the response she wants. Ignore her thrust instead and she'll be more likely to lose interest.
The Graceless Questioner Your cousin Mike asks: "Weren’t you supposed to get a promotion last year?" and "How come you guys don’t have any kids yet?"
Mike's underdeveloped tactfulness radar just doesn’t do a good job of filtering out inappropriate questions. He may not intend to cause awkwardness and embarrassment, but that’s the end result.
Don’t escalate an uncomfortable situation into a damaging one by taking offense at a poorly conceived question. Instead, answer as simply and as blandly as possible: "Promotions are on hold company-wide because of budget constraints" or "We’re just taking it slow right now."
The goal when facing an embarrassing or unwanted question is to move away from it as quickly as possible. Anything you do that highlights the question or extends the conversation, like getting upset or giving a long answer, will be counterproductive. Quick and boring answers are your very best responses to graceless questioners like Mike.
The Relentless Arguer Uncle Billy wants to argue with you about politics, current events, or virtually anything.
Uncle Billy will debate you about the president, argue about the gold standard, and then tangle with you about the best team in the NFL. (Hint: It’s not your team.). But here’s the thing: These are the same arguments you had with him last year, and the year before that, and the year before that.
The clearest indicator that a holiday fight is useless is if you argue about the same thing every year. Your prior arguments haven’t delivered anything except ruffled feathers and quickened heart rates. So why not change the subject or avoid tangling with a relentless arguer entirely this holiday season? Don’t expect a change from Uncle Billy—he’s a serial arguer—but that doesn’t mean that bickering with him is inevitable.
If you don’t want to argue, don’t. Practice your listening skills instead and bone up on the fine art of rendering a well-placed "um-hmm." It takes two to tangle, but you can be the one who creates harmony by disengaging from useless holiday arguments.
The Unsolicited Advisor Your father-in-law knows just what you should be doing to get ahead at work and—for that matter—in all facets of your life.
Your father-in-law, who retired right around the time the interweb was getting hooked up, somehow fancies himself a wellspring of contemporary career knowledge. However, his well-meaning—but outdated—advice drives you nuts. What should you do? Absolutely nothing.
You’re not going to act on unsolicited advice anyway so you might as well let the other person talk. People who give unsolicited advice are often doing it as much for themselves as they are doing it for you. Your father-in-law’s career advice probably stems from his hopes that everything will be rosy for your family. As long as he’s giving advice and not harping on what you’re doing wrong, his intentions are probably admirable. His advice isn’t going to hurt you, but may help him feel better, so let the guy talk. The last thing you want to do is overreact to his honorable intentions and cause real damage.
The Shameless Discloser Your cousin Connie tells you—and anyone else within earshot—way too much about what’s going on in her private life.
For some reason, your cousin Connie appears unfamiliar with the concept of too much information. She readily discloses unflattering personal information about her new boyfriend and the results of her most recent medical exam. Her private disclosures have become staples of your holidays just like the turkey and dressing.
Of course, we shouldn’t blow off meaningful disclosures, but those aren’t the kinds of secrets that drive us crazy. It’s one thing to provide an empathetic ear to Connie if she’s having problems with her boyfriend, but another matter entirely to hear private relationship information. You would commiserate with Connie all day long about a real health issue, but the specifics of her physical exam are definitely details you could have done without.
Why does Connie disclose so many unflattering secrets? Who knows? Maybe she craves attention, maybe she wants to see a reaction, or maybe she just doesn’t perceive her secrets as being such a big deal. Whatever the reason, your response is the same.
The best strategy for handling awkward disclosures is to play dumb and not express any interest whatsoever. Pretend like the discloser is reciting her grocery list and put on your best poker face. With any luck, she’ll take the hint and stop spilling her secrets.
Geoffrey Tumlin is the author of "Stop Talking, Start Communicating: Counterintuitive Secrets to Success in Business and in Life." He is the founder and CEO of Mouthpiece Consulting LLC, a communication consulting company; president of On-Demand Leadership, a leadership development company; and founder and board chair of Critical Skills Nonprofit, a public charity dedicated to providing communication and leadership skills training to chronically underserved populations. Tumlin holds a PhD and an MA in communication from the University of Texas at Austin and a BS from West Point. You can learn more about Geoffrey Tumlin at www.tumlin.com, and you can reach him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.