Holiday Survival Guide For Difficult Family Members

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Nearly every family tree has a few nuts. Typically large holiday gatherings are when they shake loose causing havoc and hurt feelings. The prickliest relatives are those who are self-centered, pessimistic, domineering, critical, impatient, angry or all of the above. Do these characteristics sound like anyone you know? Or someone you wish you didn’t know?

No one wants to get stuck in difficult or hostile conversations during the season of brotherly love. Besides not showing up or over-eating at the dessert bar, what are some good strategies to keep the events memorable and strengthen family bonds?

1st rule: Nothing is personal.

If you were walking down the street and a person with an oblivious mental handicap shouted something offensive to you, would it hurt your feelings? Would you take it personal? I have asked this question to many clients and all of them replied, “No, it wouldn’t hurt my feelings. I would realize that man on the street was handicapped and his opinion would not bother me.” The same logic holds true for a relative who makes a tactless comment about your favorite holiday sweater. Most likely the opinionated relative has a social impairment. Don’t take it personal, smile and move on.

2nd rule: Talk about the concepts where you agree instead of the details of disagreement.

For example if you are conservative and left-wing Aunt Sadie says, “The conservatives are ruining our country, we must elect liberals in the next election.” It would be foolish to argue whether or not the conservatives are ruining the country or to give your opinion on your favorite candidate. Instead simply say, “Yes, it would be good for citizens to get knowledgeable and involved in the next election.” Citizen education and involvement are an area where you both agree. Choose to talk in areas of agreement instead of wallowing in details of disagreement.

3rd Rule: Plan to listen more than you talk.

Dale Carnegie in his classic book, How to Win Friends and Influence People said, “You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.” If you show genuine interest in your relatives, it is surprising how easily conversations flow. You can show others you care by asking questions, giving sincere compliments and listening without interrupting.

4th rule: Have an exit strategy.

Drive yourself to the party or gathering so you are in control of the length of stay. Holding car keys in your hands will create a mental shift. You are not a victim trapped by Uncle Fred’s long story you are choosing to engage. You are making a memory with an old man who may not be around for next Christmas. If you feel your personal resources tapped and your social good will low, then graciously thank the host or hostess say good-bye and leave. Family gatherings with difficult people can be demanding on our personal skills. But keep in mind the four rules. You may find the nuts can be cracked and you can keep your self esteem.

Camille Curtis Foster, LCSW


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This article was also published:

Deseret News.com

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