How to deal with family conflict during the holidays

Courage Does Not Take a Holiday

Dusty Staub Courage to be Confronted, Courage to be Vulnerable and To Love, Courage to Learn and Grow

A Conflict Survival Guide for Families During the Holidays

by Robert “Dusty” Staub

The holidays are rapidly approaching.  For many, this is a time for celebration, connection with family and friends, and expressions of love and gratitude. Paradoxically, during the holidays we also see increased depression, anxiety, tension and conflict.

What is going on?  What is behind this paradox?

Having  been trained as a Marital and Family Therapist, I have had the opportunity to observe these dynamics in depth with my clients, as well as to explore them first hand with my own family. Old wounds, unresolved jealousies, frozen perceptions, and unrealistic expectations – these are part of a recipe for disappointment, hurt and unnecessary pain.

Ironically, conflict can happen even when, deep down, family members truly care for each other. Often there is an attempt to suppress what we are really thinking or feeling because we don’t want to threaten family ties. But invariably we show our true colors, and by then it doesn’t always come out diplomatically!

A “survival guide” for dealing with family dynamics during the holidays.

Later in this post, I’ll share a useful conflict survival guide that can help you successfully navigate difficult family situations – especially during the holidays. This guide can also serve as a roadmap for greater happiness in key relationships year-round. In my personal experience, courage is especially important when we move into the holiday season and are going to be spending extended time with family members.

First, there is the Courage to be Open and Vulnerable

Not as a victim, but as someone who loves and is willing to seek to understand versus to defend.

The courage to be open and vulnerable

In fact, the biggest mistake most family members make when they hear something they don’t like, or feel offended or hurt by, is to become defensive.  The instant you start to defend yourself against what someone has said, you have already lost.

When you become defensive (which can include going on the offensive), you feed the conflict and simply lock in the perception that you are “clueless and just don’t get it!”… or that you “haven’t changed and can’t hear any criticism!”.. or that “I just can’t talk to you!”

When you defend, you set up the dynamics for more of the “same old stuff” – pain, frustration, limiting perceptions and judgments, all just recycling around and around.  Clearly this does not work and it just creates greater pain and damage to the relationship with each difficult encounter.

Second and closely related is the Courage to be Confronted.

Courage to be confronted

Do this by letting your family member know that you heard what they said. In order for the other to be willing to listen to your truth, model listening to theirs first. When you don’t listen, or immediately jump to defend or argue, you simply reinforce old, one-sided perceptions about you. You also lock in your own way of seeing and thinking about the other(s).  This is tragic and leads to great pain and hurt in families.

Having allowed yourself to listen non-defensively, you can now bring in the Courage to Learn and Grow

Courage to learn and grow

Ask unexpected follow-up questions: “Can you tell me more?  How is what you are accusing me of affecting you?  What would you ask of me?”

In doing this, you do not have to agree with your family member’s accusation or judgment. Courage to Learn and Grow includes taking emotional risks, stepping into the unknown, suspending judgment and inviting curiosity, seeking “to understand” versus working so hard to “be understood.”

It requires the courage to say, “I know what happens when I do the same old, same old. I wonder what would happen if I tried a new, different way of responding or relating to this person?”

How do you know if you have the courage to learn and grow? It should make you feel good about yourself and your relationship, with the honest hope of a new and better way of connecting moving forward.

Resolving family conflict

Another way to say this is that is…

Whenever there is conflict, you can choose to either protect or explore.

When you protect, you are either shutting down, going passive, and avoiding (as in annual excuses of why you can’t make the family reunion), OR, you are going on the attack by defending yourself, arguing, finding fault with the other and insisting on being right. This leaves you feeling righteous, angry, frustrated, isolated, disappointed, or grieving.

When you explore, on the other hand, you are cultivating curiosity and actively seeking to understand the feelings, needs, perspectives, fears and values of your family members. You begin by “not taking it personally,” instead choosing to see that the other person is in pain.

They may be “lashing out” in general or just clueless as to the hurt they have generated.  As a compassionate listener you can sort out if you are a true target, or just a convenient person to vent to. From this more grounded place, you can discern what heartfelt action may be required of you. To buy yourself some time, you can always start with, “This feels big and important.  Let me just sit with this for a moment.”

A powerful tool to help you explore is active listening.

Active listening - surviving family conflict during the holidays

You can follow up with clarifying questions, but first, listen deeply – to the words, body language, and especially to the underlying emotional tone. Use this instead of automatically explaining or defending yourself.

Reflect on what the other is saying and mirror that back:  “I hear you saying I am self-centered and don’t care about your feelings.  Is that true all of the time or just some of the time?” “When do you most experience me as being that way?”

“What would you rather have me do that would show more consideration for you or others?”

It also helps to use power questions.  These are questions that go for the gusto, for the most important point of pain or perception, such as: “What is the one thing I do that is most difficult or painful for you?”  “What is the one thing I could do to make this feel or work better?”  “What is the one thing you want me to understand about you and your feelings that would let you know I really heard you / understood you?”

Use power questions and active listening to seek to understand, to give yourself time to think and calm down and to show the other person that you care.  So often when these two tools are used effectively, resolution presents itself with ease. 

The Holiday Family Conflict Survival Guide – 7 Steps to Greater Effectiveness

The Survival Guide outlines 7 key actions to keep in mind this holiday season when dealing with your family and loved ones.

  1. Remember: “You Are Not The Target” – Even when it feels personal, it is really about the other person’s perspective, pain, and way of viewing the world. You are a convenient person or place for them to “dump” their pain – it is not really so much about you, as about them.
  2. Suspend Judgment – Notice every time you are judging someone and consciously let it go.
  3. Stop Blaming – Notice any tendency to “blame” anyone else, even yourself, and stop the blame game. Instead, try compassion.
  4. Give up the need to be “Right” – Stop insisting your viewpoint is the “right” one.  Righteousness only leads to loss, alienation, anger and more of the same old “s- – t”.
  5. Stop Defending, Seek to Understand– Notice every time you start to defend, to justify or “explain” yourself. Cultivate curiosity and open to the other person’s perspective and way of viewing the world.  Use active listening and follow-up questions.
  6. Model Compassion in Action – Return kindness and positive comments for painful ones received; show a willingness to see or hear the pain or concerns or perspective of the other person(s). Remember, life is hard and everyone has known and will know suffering. Make the commitment NOT to perpetuate more suffering through any words or action on your part.
  7. Step Away If / When Triggered – Instead of defending, arguing, going passive, attacking, etc. when you feel really triggered by a family member, excuse yourself and go for a short walk, or step outside to connect with Nature. Give yourself a break to calm down, remember the survival guidelines and to re-center yourself.  It is OK to take a break versus going into the same old patterns of the past.  Think about how you will re-engage in a positive way when you go back inside or re-encounter the triggering person.

Are you ready to take a step forward this holiday season by dealing with any conflict that might occur in a fresh, healthy way?

Happy family without conflict

  1. First, identify the old patterns you predict could get activated when your larger family gathers. What are the triggers for and themes of disagreement? Who are the key players?
  2. Second, make a commitment to yourself to use the seven key actions in the “Survival Guide,” including the one to walk away and calm down and then re-engage with the other(s).
  3. Third, use your active imagination to practice moving with and through the pain points that most often trigger you when you are with your family.
  4. Fourth, call on courage and keep your heart in the driver seat when it comes to the real interactions.  You can even use language like, “Help me out, please. I’m trying something new here because I care about our relationship.”

The Survival Guide is not only for family and holidays, of course.

Take the principles, tools and guidelines out to all relationships, including those at work.  The process works.  It is tested and true.  It has helped my family and the families of many others.  In addition, it has made better working relationships and work environments for many teams and companies.

Have the courage to be more effective in all aspects of your life by modeling the courage to:

Be Vulnerable

Be Confronted

Learn and Grow

Wishing you a joyful – and loving – Holiday Season!


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