Christmas: A time of joy, love, laughter and peace on earth. Or maybe not…
While Christmas is a wondrous time of year in many ways, it’s often also when you find yourself in uncomfortable or inappropriate conversations with relatives and friends you’ve hardly seen all year.
You know the sort: The conversations where people think it’s ok to comment on your appearance or weight; state their political views as universal fact; question your relationship/marital status/parenting style; wonder out loud if the reason you’re drinking soft drink is because you’re pregnant; and outright ask if you’re going to hurry up and have a baby soon.
(NB: If you do any of these things in conversation, slap yourself across the face and STOP – immediately.)
For those of you on the receiving end, here are 10 strategies for managing difficult conversations at Christmas:
1. Get conscious about your power to choose your response. Only you get to decide whether something offends you or not. Only you get to decide whether to give someone else’s words power. That doesn’t mean you don’t get angry or upset – it simply means if you do, you own that as a conscious decision. If something does upset you, make a conscious decision about whether to say something assertively, or to let it go. The approach you choose will depend on your relationship with the person and how on top of your emotions you are on the day.
Letting it go and choosing a passive response is absolutely fine, as long as you do just that: Let it go and move on. Don’t default to passive-aggressive.
2. Put a pause between your reaction and your response. When we respond immediately, we tend to respond emotionally, which doesn’t always give us the best outcome. Take a breath, gulp that wine (or soft drink!), make a choice about how and if you want to respond, and only then respond.
3. Depersonalise and empathise. If your long-lost cousin is behaving like a jealous toddler, talking you down and dismissing your achievements, rather than immediately get offended, put yourself in their shoes. Their reaction probably has nothing to do with you and everything to do with their own feelings of inadequacy. It’s about them, not you. They’re likely intimidated by your success and trying to dim your light to make theirs shine brighter. Be glad you’re not them.
4. Remember, you can’t control other people, you can only control you. Some people are idiots and sometimes the idiots are family. That’s life. You can’t control what other people say or how they behave, you can only control you. Don’t engage in manipulation and passive aggressive nonsense. Be the bigger and better person.
5. Use ‘I’ statements to have difficult conversations or deal with conflict without sounding aggressive or confrontational. ‘I’ statements acknowledge that what you’re saying is from your perception, which doesn’t necessarily make it fact.
Go for “I disagree” rather than “you’re wrong” and try “I know it wasn’t your intention, but I find that question quite rude,” rather than “You’re an asshole”.
6. Agree to disagree. This is one of the quickest and most effective ways to diffuse a heated conversation, particularly when discussing emotive topics like politics or religion. If you’re poles apart with someone, neither of you is going to change your mind based on a dinner table debate, so agree to disagree and move on.
7. Say no decisively and politely: “No thank you, I don’t want dessert.” (Ok, so I wouldn’t say that, but you get the picture.)
8. Be a broken record. Have a key message and stick to it, rather than getting sucked into a conversation you don’t want to have. Think about what this message might be before an event; perhaps, “I’m happily single right now”. Repeat it in response to any questions about your relationship status and people will quickly see that you won’t be drawn and move on.
9. Use humour. When Uncle John says, “Ooooh, no alcohol. We all know what that means – wink, wink, nudge, nudge”, try quipping back something like, “we sure do – no hangover!”, or if you want to be assertive, go back to point five and the ‘I’ statement. Maybe Uncle John is genuinely oblivious to the fact his comment is inappropriate and potentially hurtful, and you want to let him know so he thinks before he speaks in future. “I’m sure it wasn’t your intention…” is often a great intro.
10. Seek common ground. Remind each other why you’re there. “Today’s about fun, family and celebration. How about we save this debate for another time?”
Merry Christmas folks and good luck!
Leah Mether is a communications specialist, trainer, speaker and director of Methmac Communications. She works with businesses and individuals to help them improve their communications and step up for success.