As we move into the holiday season many of us will see relatives whom we see only once a year. And with that, comes potential for joy and bonding, but also for ruptures and rumbles. 

While it may feel unpredictable, you have a lot more power and control than you may think! Sure, you can’t completely force Uncle Bob to quit his passive-aggressive comments about everything everybody does that doesn’t align with his way of living. But you can choose to turn your energy towards what you DO want (which we assume is peace, joy and laughter). 

We’ve identified habits and tips for achieving them, that will foster all those good feelings and reduce tension or disagreements. 

Use Mindfulness to Handle Tough Conversations

There are many reasons that politics and the current state of affairs of the world might enter the dinner table conversation. If you want to approach those discussions in a mature and healthy way, we recommend using mindfulness. 

Be mindful of what you are thinking, feeling and experiencing when hot button topics pop up. This can prevent impulsive words and behaviors. If you feel yourself getting charged up, be mindful of this, and ask for a break, take a few breaths, and step away from the conversation. You could say, “Can we pause this conversation before we feel overwhelmed?”  

Be mindful of others. Ask yourself, is this person readily able to have a productive conversation with you about this topic? Knowing your audience doesn’t mean keeping your mouth shut just for the purpose of keeping the peace. We’re all about speaking up for what you believe in! However, if you find your philosophical discussion turning into a head to head battle it may be time to step back and take a break. Remember, a person whose opinion is forcefully changed, ends up with the same opinion they started with. 

By using mindfulness, we can more easily see the value in maintaining good will and respecting another person’s right to have their own opinions, even when they differ from our own. 

Discuss Ideas, Not People 

Stay out of the political quagmire and personal weeds by elevating the conversation to the level of ideas. Here are ways to up-level your conversations.

Reduce the trigger for defensiveness by discussing ideas in the form of what you do want, versus bashing what you don’t want. For instance, instead of bashing anyone who doesn’t agree with “Medicare for All” you could instead focus your energy on why the idea of “taking care of each other” is important to you personally. Or open the discussion to what “do unto others” (A.K.A. the golden rule) means to you and the others at the gathering. 

In the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, “Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people.” The current polarized political climate often pulls us down from our “higher, great mind” into our “tribal, primitive mind.” Simply by re-elevating the ideas we can keep our discussions civil and more productive. You might actually get through to a family member!

Ask why and listen, really listen. Don’t be a lawyer, looking for holes in the argument. Instead try to understand what they believe. We are often guilty of immediately judging a belief or stance and poking holes in it, but family time is for growing together. Listening to someone can really only serve to inform you. Nobody is making you convert to their viewpoint, and if they are, just keep listening. It won’t kill you. We promise.

Practice reflective and active listening.  Active listening involves showing the person through gestures like looking them in the eye or nodding your head. Don’t be looking through your phone for the latest research that will “totally prove them wrong”. Reflective listening means truly listening and then reflecting back what you hear appropriately. “Oh ok, I think I’m hearing that you’re saying…”. This doesn’t mean you have to agree with them. You are just showing that you are hearing them, and BONUS you actually WILL. 

Set Boundaries and Practice Self Care

The holidays are really fun, and can be really exhausting. At times, you’re spending more time with a bigger group of people than you have in the whole rest of the year. It’s important that you be mindful of your energy and of your personal reservoir. Introverts especially need to set some space aside to recharge, but even extroverts can get exhausted and need some time to unwind and take care of themselves. 

Use mindfulness to be aware of how much is left in your tank, and use boundaries to protect the time you need to recharge. Give your family some notice that you are going to need some time to recharge, so that they know whats coming, and aren’t left to assume that you are disengaging because you’re upset or don’t care. Then do what you need to do, no matter what comes up. (Sorry sister, I can’t go to the grocery store with you right now to replace the stuffing that was eaten off the table by the dog.) 

We promise, setting the boundary for a recharge will make you a happier and a more productive helper later! This can also look like making a habit of having a set time each day where you focus on what’s going to make you feel good. This could look like a morning ritual where you sip some tea on the porch with your thoughts, or go for a walk around the neighborhood. You can even invite the person you want to get quality one on one time with, which is hard to come by during the holidays, if it isn’t going to take away energy.

It’s also healthy to check in with everybody else’s limits, too! Make a habit of asking people how they are doing and how you can support them when they are looking drained or running on empty

Show Appreciation and Love

Families are kind of like symphonies. We can think of the individuals in a family as unique instruments. Every instrument is different, and each one is important and has its own unique beauty. 

For some of us, it may take a bit more effort to appreciate the beauty of the triangle when we are so drawn to the light echoing of the chimes or the richness of the cello. Perhaps the gong only comes in once in a while and doesn’t participate regularly, but when it does sound, it enriches and changes the depth of the music. 

Each of us is needed for just what we can do. Our contributions and participation levels will be different and that is A-OK. Here are a few tips to help you show appreciation and love to your family.

Journal about your appreciation of each family member ahead of time, so that you can mindfully frame your experiences and focus on what you want. Your journal prompt could be something like, “write three things that you appreciate about Aunt Jilly,” or “consider how you want the quality or your interaction with your sister to be.” Also, consider journaling about what you would like to contribute this holiday season. Mindfulness journalling and habits give us the opportunity to grow ever more into the person that we want to be.

There is no need to remind your spouse, siblings or children of their short-comings or point out areas for improvement. We all know where we need to improve and grow. What IS needed is an atmosphere of LOVE, where we feel safe and accepted and able to grow and make the changes that we desire in our lives. We need love and belonging. A home filled with family should be a sanctuary and a safe haven from a sometimes turbulent world. We can’t control what others do, but we can mindfully consider the role that we will play.

We can choose to foster love and a sense of belonging for those with whom we share our holidays. In one of her books, Brené Brown distinguishes between belonging and fitting in. “Fitting in” is where we feel that we need to change something about  ourselves in order to be accepted. Belonging is where we are loved and accepted as we are. Others might call it “unconditional love.”

Praise in public, correct in private. This adage is good advice for any relationship. When you have something good to say about someone, have as large an audience as possible. Shout it from the rooftops, if you like! When there is something sensitive to discuss, or some sort of constructive criticism to be shared, please provide privacy. It is a matter of dignity and respect. No one wants to be shamed or embarrassed by being corrected in front of others. That can be hurtful. It can be hard to take a correction even on our own.

Privacy and a respectful approach also reduces the likelihood that excessive defensiveness will arise and defeat the possibility of a constructive, mutually beneficial conversation. When in doubt, think of how you would like to be treated. We are all in need of tenderness and kindness, even when we seem at our toughest. 

Gratitude, gratitude, gratitude! No matter how busy your holiday is, take a few minutes each day to do some gratitude journaling. This is proven to increase your level of happiness. Your happiness is important, and your state of mind and emotion is contagious! Put yourself in an emotional position to add to the joy this season. We have so much to be grateful for, and there is power in seeing and acknowledging the good.      

Move Together

Get people moving this holiday season! But whatever you do don’t call it exercise – make a game out of it! This is much easier with youngsters around, but adults are equally game (especially after a few eggnogs). The idea is to get everyone involved.

Hula-hoop, jump rope and inch worm your way to a fun, family game. You can also shoot hoops or play a classic game of Turkey Day touch football. A three legged race can get anyone who can walk involved and requires nothing but a few extra shoe laces to get organized. A little friendly competition goes a long way in tightening family bonds.

It is also a chance to pair up people who may not otherwise talk that much. You can put everyone’s name on a slip of paper and draw teams from a bowl, or create a bowl for the kids and one for the adults and pair a kid with an adult to make sure you get generations together. We all have so much to learn from the older generations AND the younger. Don’t waste an opportunity to learn from and grow closer to each other.

A bonus of group movement is that since exercise serves as a stress release valve it could really decrease the tension that may develop between members of the family

Don’t Skip House Games and Storytime

You don’t have to restrict yourself to outdoor activities and eating indoors. Spice it up with some fun group games and stories.

Go around the table and have everyone tell a story about something they are grateful for. Not just an “I’m grateful for X” but what is a story that demonstrates that? Don’t put people on the spot, kick things off yourself. Give people time to think.

Have people tell fun stories about previous holidays. Everybody has some outrageous ones! Just last Thanksgiving we had “rock salt surprise” mashed potatoes because the salt grinder broke open in the middle of making them. The family tried to pick out most of it… but occasionally one of us got the “surprise” while eating them. Now it’s a story we can all laugh and bond over.

Play a game. Our favorites involve a twist on trivia, like Scattergories or Cranium. But Apples to Apples or Cards Against Humanity are also amazing. Just be sure to gauge your audience as some of these cards can be, how should I put this, NOT politically correct. 

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