It’s a common storyline in holiday films (and households) in our society. After family members gather together at the Thanksgiving table, all of the issues festering in their hearts and over their heads create tension that builds and leads a huge blow up. We might laugh when we see the antics unfold on the big screen but the sad reality is that it’s entertaining because most of us can relate.
It doesn’t have to be that way, though. By being proactive, you can prevent or reduce the fighting and, ultimately, improve your relationship with your loved ones. Interested? Whether you’re dining in person or over Zoom this year, here are some suggestions.
Address The Elephant in the Room
Within families, rumors can quickly spread and, by the time you get to the Thanksgiving table, everyone might have some version of a truth that’s never even been confirmed. If you hear something about Jimmy’s affair or Claire losing her job, go directly to the source (in a respectful and loving way) and ask them about it.
Once you’ve engaged them in a conversation, explain that others are curious about what’s going on and offer to work together to address the situation. Encourage them to speak for themselves so that everyone has the details from the horse’s mouth. It’s not necessarily easy but it’s better than allowing others to create the kind of false narrative that can derail your time together.
Listen With an Open Heart
When hurt feelings or strong emotions are involved, it is tempting to shut down. After all, dealing with these types of situations can be draining and difficult so it’s no surprise that many of us do our best to avoid them.
More than ever, though, it’s important to listen with an open heart, even if someone is saying something unpleasant about you. Try to see things from their perspective rather than immediately becoming defensive.
Extend an Olive Branch
If you’re directly involved in a family squabble, consider extending the olive branch. This can take shape in a number of ways. If you were in the wrong, swallow your pride and say you’re sorry. Speaking directly to the other party, acknowledge how you were hurtful, pledge to do better, and then see what happens.
On the flip side, you may offer forgiveness to someone who hurt you, regardless of whether that person has apologized. It’s best if they seem remorseful but, if they aren’t, letting go of the grudge will lift a burden off your shoulders and set you free. You shouldn’t necessarily forget what happened, but learn the lesson and release the baggage.
Set Firm Boundaries
Whether you’re hosting the gathering or simply attending, it’s completely acceptable to create boundaries. If your Uncle Jeff verbally attacks about social and political issues, it’s fine to make it clear that, if he plans to do that, he should stay home.
Explain that he can try to engage in debates on the issues in a healthy manner on every other day of the year but that those topics are off-limits during the holidays. If he breaks the rule, don’t engage him. Smile, nod, and ask him to pass the sweet potatoes. He’ll either get the hint and move on or he will leave.
While we’re on this topic, create some boundaries for the kids too. Years ago, it was common for parents to encourage their reluctant children to hug Aunt Susan or sit on Grandpa’s lap. Never force a little one to interact with someone if they don’t want to, and certainly don’t label them as “rude” if they don’t kiss someone on the cheek. Instead, when you get home, have a private discussion with your child and really listen to (and respect) what they have to say.
Keep Your Distance, If Need Be
Never compromise your integrity or sense of self-worth for the sake of resolving conflicts with your family (or anyone). At the end of the day, if all attempts at civility have failed (or you just don’t think you can handle it), stay home and enjoy a quiet holiday on your own.
Invite some trusted friends or co-workers over and create warm memories and fresh traditions. It’s unfortunate but, in some cases, you’re better off keeping your distance. It might be the biggest holiday gift you could ever give to yourself.