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7 Surprising Tips to Survive Family Time This Holiday Season

God rest ye merry gentlemen (and women) for tis the season of mulling wine, roasting chestnuts, jolly gluttony and err, fighting with your siblings. Here’s how to get through without too much strife.
by Caitlin Schiller | Dec 6 2019

It’s that time of year again: time for winding things down and wrapping up gifts; time for holiday parties and family meals. Maybe you’ll finally get to meet your brother’s girlfriend, or you’ll be cooking a holiday dinner for your co-workers. More than anything, this is the time of year for nurturing—and hopefully improving—your relationships.

Here, we’ve pulled together a few pieces of advice that can help you have better conversations with family and friends, restore broken trust among colleagues, and finally get your kids to listen. We hope there’s something in here to help make your holiday a little merrier, a little brighter, and make your relationships a little stronger, too.

1. Pay less attention to the meal.

Good news: you’re probably already planning something that strengthens your relationships in a major way, and that’s sharing a meal. In Minimalist Parenting, Christine Koh & Ashal Dornfest note that eating together is one of the best ways to strengthen bonds.

Unfortunately, with all the pressure on pulling off the perfect holiday meal, the real value of the activity—being present with each other—can get lost among the linens. So this time around, put the people first, not the pies. Even if it’s a work dinner you’re organizing, you can continue to honor what really counts about your holiday gathering with two tips from the minimalist parent.

First, keep it simple. If you know what your company likes, don’t reinvent the roast: just make something you’re comfortable with cooking and you know they like to eat so you can take the focus off of the food and put it on the interpersonal connection.

Second, give everyone a role to carry out at the meal. Have people cut veggies, fold napkins, or take other arriving guests’ coats. It doesn’t have to be complex. Working toward a shared goal brings groups—whether it’s a work team or your in-laws—together. More on stressing less and parenting better in Minimalist Parenting.

2. Invite your vulnerability to the table.

Vulnerability is often misconstrued as a negative or dangerous thing, but it’s an essential quality of being human. Our vulnerabilities are what make us distinct, empathetic, and—ultimately—lovable.

In her book, Daring Greatly, Brené Brown counsels to learn to embrace your vulnerability. In fact, if you ignore it or you’re simply unaware of it, you might end up increasing it. A study in Brown’s book showed that people who believed themselves to be invulnerable to the persuasive power of advertising were actually most susceptible to it; participants claiming to be unaffected by commercials responded more to them than those who acknowledged their own suggestibility.

Learning to be vulnerable with friends and family is important for your personal life, and it comes with benefits for your professional development, too. If you practice only what you know you’re good at, you avoid being exposed to failure. But you also miss out on learning from a new experience. By taking risks and daring to expose our work and ideas to external criticism, we grow. Learning to get vulnerable enough to take risks, fail, and use them to advance is one of the best methods there is to improve.

3. Encourage others’ vulnerability to increase your chances of clicking.

Let’s get a little deeper into vulnerability. If you deliberately make yourself vulnerable by revealing your emotions, weaknesses, and fears, you signal to other people that you trust them. The magic of this is that, in turn, those people will be more likely to trust you and instinctively reciprocate by making themselves vulnerable, which leads to a deeper, more comfortable, and open connection.

Have your doubts that this could ever work with warring factions in your own family? Suspend them. In their book, Click, Ori and Zach Brafman report that this tactic works so consistently that it’s possible to make absolute strangers click with each other by gently prompting them to reveal intimate information to each other—like their deepest secrets or fears.

In one study, students who’d never met before were instructed to interview each other, posing a series of probing and increasingly intimate questions. The result? Many of the participants actually clicked because of the experience and in fact developed friendships with each other that lasted throughout the year. It’s the same phenomenon at work in this experiment, which swept through the media earlier this year.

Share and be open to others’ sharing and you’re almost guaranteed to have a nicer interpersonal time. Start using the science behind clicking by dinner time tonight.

4. Restore a battered relationship with smart trust and credibility.

Let’s get real: there’s nary a family without its schisms, so getting vulnerable isn’t always easy. Psychic wounds run deep, as can grudges and unvoiced resentments. So, once you’ve messed up, or someone else has, how do you come back to caring for one another in a way that feels safe?

Regaining or strengthening trust takes effort, commitment, and the extension of something author Stephen Covey calls smart trust: a combination of feeling that others are generally worthy of trust, and taking a close look at the possible implications of trusting someone.

Say you are about to go into business with someone who has previously betrayed you. Although you’d normally be right to approach every situation with the hope that everyone involved is inherently trustworthy, diving straight into a joint venture with this person would demonstrate a lack of learning on your part. Practicing smart trust in this case would mean cautiously giving this person more responsibility, or studying other decisions of hers in similar situations.

But what if it’s you who’s made mistakes? It isn’t possible to “fix” someone else’s opinion of you and force them to trust you, so you’d have to try other means of getting back in their good graces. In this situation, the best thing you can do is improve your credibility. In The Speed of Trust, Covey gives the example of how his son was permitted to use the family car on the condition that he didn’t drive over the speed limit, Unfortunately, he was caught doing exactly that. The son displayed credibility, however, by working hard to pay off the speeding ticket. This restored the family’s trust in him and allowed the son to keep the keys to the whip.

5. Give your loved ones space.

This one’s from a dating advice book, Sherry Argov’s Why Men Love Bitches. The lesson here, however—that getting over-involved can push people away—can easily be extended to siblings and offspring.

In her book, Argov explains that a person who focuses all of his attention on his partner or, say, his child, causes both parties to lose their independence. If you’ve ever had an overprotective parent or an over-involved romantic partner, you already know that this creates rifts.

Let’s take Argov’s example of a couple we’ll call Andy and Lisa. Lisa was a vibrant woman who loved to dance salsa and was always out with her friends. Once she met Andy, she adjusted life to his pace, giving up more and more of her own interests to spend more time with him. But the reason he fell for her in the first place was her personality and that she had a lot going on in her life. Once Lisa gave these things up, and with them, her independence, the attraction and spark went with it, driving the couple apart.

Argov’s book also reminds that people have their own problems and need their space, so by getting too involved, you can end up alienating them. If a parent were to cancel her plans with friends, pull back on her hobbies, and entirely prioritize her kid’s visit over the rest of her life for the two weeks he’s in town, that kid might feel smothered. Even if she doesn’t mean to, she might expect the same treatment from him, meaning it would be implied he couldn’t go out to meet old friends or spend time out of the house.

A much healthier alternative? Finding a balance between life as usual and special, celebratory time together. It will keep stress levels lower for all parties involved and remove some of the pressure from your connection.

6. Try some words of affirmation.

Gary Chapman’s classic book The 5 Love Languages makes a powerful observation: not everyone feels or expresses love in the same way. People can show care through gifts, touch, and time, but one of the most straightforward ways to practice love with your family, friends, and even coworkers is through positive communication, or what Chapman calls words of affirmation.

Encouraging, kind, and humble words are dialects of the same love language: words of affirmation. One kind of surefire affirmative speech you can try? The compliment. Verbal compliments are best when they’re simple, particularly if you’re not entirely accustomed to giving them. Solid examples are telling your partner he or she looks great in that new outfit, praising his or her ability to take care of the children, or verbally appreciating your dad’s great sense of humor.

And don’t underestimate the power of a compliment! Chapman gives the example of a woman who came into his office lamenting that her husband simply wouldn’t take action and paint their bedroom as she’d been begging him to for nearly nine months. Chapman gave her a new tactic: instead of mentioning the missing paint job, she was to compliment her husband on every good deed he’d done. The woman was skeptical but took his advice.

Three weeks later, she reported that it had worked: bedroom, painted; husband, happier. She learned that words of affirmation are far greater motivators than words of critique. Find out what your love languages is—and discover that of your nearest and dearest—in The 5 Love Languages.

7. Improve your conversations with confrontational inquiry and process-oriented inquiry.

Connecting isn’t all sunshine and roses—or words of affirmation. Sometimes you need to have a serious conversation to troubleshoot your relationship or defuse an issue. Instead of making accusations or assumptions, a great way to move a conversation is through inquiry.

In Edgar Schein’s book, Humble Inquiry, offers two tools: confrontational and process-oriented inquiry. The first time, confrontational inquiry, is particularly useful if you need to push a conversation in a certain direction as it involves introducing your own ideas in the form of a question.

For example, if during a meeting you notice a few colleagues squirming in their chairs, you might ask another coworker afterwards, “Do you think they were squirming because they were frightened?” rather than simply, “Why were they squirming like that?” Before you use confrontational inquiry, it’s important to identify your own motives. Use confrontational inquiry when you want to help your conversation partner and you want learn more about their perspective, not if you simply want to test your assumptions.

The second kind of inquiry you can use in a conversation with a loved one is process-oriented inquiry. Sometimes you’ll notice that your interlocutor is uncomfortable. In these cases, you might need to probe for more information about how she feels about the conversation itself. You can ask her things like: “Are we still OK?”, “Have I offended you?”, “Is this conversation moving in the right direction?” or “Am I being too personal?” This kind of inquiry focuses on the relationship between you and your conversation partner, and ensures that neither party is stressed and that everyone’s expectations are being met.

BONUS: Compromise—even with your kids.

Tisn’t the season for punishment. In How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk, Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish encourage teaching children about compromise early on. The season of forgiveness is a great time to start.

Faber and Mazlish explain that when your child’s done something wrong, punishing him or her most often leads to anger and hinders future progress. Say your older child stays out too late for the third night in a row during the school week. You decide to punish her with a grounding. But stopping her going out will make her feel angry and misunderstood. She won’t see how staying out late is a bad idea, she’ll just see that you don’t approve of it.

There’s a four-step approach that’ll make this whole situation better: First, have a dialogue with your child about her feelings and needs. Ask her why she came back late and why she feels mistreated if she has to stay home as a consequence. Second, offer up your own feelings and needs, explaining why you feel concerned if she comes home long after her curfew. Then brainstorm together to find some mutually acceptable solutions and note them all down, without evaluation. Perhaps you come up with the idea that one day there’s no curfew at all, or that she has to text you to explain when she will be late and why.

Finally, come to an agreement on which suggestions you both like and try them out. Don’t try to force your favorite ideas on your child; the goal is to come to a mutual agreement.

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