In these divisive times, it's more important than ever to maintain civility during family holiday gatherings.
How can you keep your temper, hold your tongue and keep a festive holiday event from becoming a disaster?
It can help to cultivate a habit of civility and to take a page from the 12 step programs, saying "Just for today, I will..."
1. Refuse take the bait. This is a huge help when your conservative Uncle George, a die-hard Trump supporter, or your equally fervent Aunt Judy, who vows to support Bernie 4-Ever, pounces on you with a confrontation about your own beliefs, affiliations or voting record. You might say "I just want to enjoy you today without our differing views getting in the way. So what about....." And bring up a favorite sports team or ask about their children's or grandchildren's latest achievements. Or inquire about their health or even ask about their travels or what you know is a favorite hobby. Anything to avoid the conversational flashpoint that can derail a family holiday celebration into a scream-fest.
2. Deflect conflict with humor: If your smug, know-it-all older brother descends on you with his 97 reasons why Trump is doing a great job (or 97 reasons why he's an absolute disaster), cut off the confrontation with a little self-deprecating humor: "Look, you know I’m a wild-eyed fanatic. Don’t get me started! Let's give everyone here a break. Mom and Aunt Sally have gone to a lot of trouble to make this wonderful dinner. I don’t want to spoil it. So let's discuss all this at another time and in another place!"
3. Stifle the urge to set someone straight: Don't tell a family member who is a total hypochondriac that he or she is healthy or venture the thought that a tortured youth really had a delightful upbringing. Just listen. Hear them out -- until you find an escape -- without feeling the urge to poke holes in their reality. The same is true of family stories: each person may have his or her own version of the same event. Don't jump in with "No! It wasn't that way!" Listen and then offer your own memories in a non-threatening way: "What I remember most about that day is....." and perhaps observe that what makes family stories so fun or interesting is that all members bring different perspectives and memories to the tales.
4. Take the high road: If met with hostility and continuing attempts to get to you, don't react in the expected way. Instead of meeting hostility automatically with anger, think for a moment, reflecting on the unhappiness of this person or other painful feelings behind the stinging words, and say "You may be right...." or "I'll have to think about that." or "I think we'll just have to agree to disagree on this one..." This unexpected reaction can take the wind out of the confrontational relative's sails without a major blowup.
5. Keep confrontations gentle and, if possible, private. If someone says something so offensive, you can't let it pass, take the person aside to talk it over instead of escalating the conflict in front of everyone. And, as you consider countering these offensive comments, ask yourself if these are alcohol-fueled and if the offender could even hear and understand another point of view right now. If you can't avoid disagreeing in front of everyone --e.g. at the dinner table -- say "I see things differently..." but don't attack the other. Simply state your feelings as well as your desire to have the pleasure of all being together take center stage.
Another course of action is to avoid holiday celebrations where others are guaranteed to be (take your pick) boring, offensive, obnoxious, controlling or otherwise challenging to your peace of mind. However, in avoiding the problematic, you may also miss seeing some people you truly enjoy.
Remember that you don't need to win to have a good time. You don't have to match another's hostility to get him or her to back down. You don't have to agree with a person -- on one topic or most topics -- to love him or her a lot.
Keep in mind that holiday gatherings are usually a mixed bag of fun, tedium, old memories both joyous and fraught, new memories of the bad and the beautiful moments. Some of these you simply, just for today, endure and move on. Other moments can bring pleasure and happiness for years to come.