Five Steps to Avoid Family Conflict During the Holidays

Celebrating the holidays with the ones you love is what makes this time of the year so special. The holidays will look different for many of us this year, which also means that those infamous holiday family conflicts will look different this year, too, and could be more intense than usual. Dr. Debra J. Dean, President and CEO of Dean Business Consulting, writes for the 4word blog with her thoughts on keeping family celebrations civil this holiday season, in-person or from afar.

Family gatherings can stir up all sorts of emotions. Most families have the person that judges others for what they are wearing or what car they are driving. They may also have that person that shakes their finger and lashes out because someone is doing something they don’t agree with. Or, there could be the guest that makes fun of other people in a crude and disrespectful way, but everyone allows it because it’s been that way for years. 

Chances are this event will be different than last year. Perhaps there are new people showing up. Perhaps there are people that came to the festivities last year that are not coming this year. And, regardless of who is coming, there is always something new and different that can cause joy or sadness. So, the questions are: How can we manage the event so the celebration can mean what it is supposed to mean without someone ruining it and how can we do it so the majority of guests leave better off than when they first arrived?

Be Intentional 

Tony Robbins talks about the outcome. Think about the outcome you want before the event happens. Think about the outcome you want before you invite guests over for Thanksgiving or Christmas. Think about the outcome you want for each and every day. This thought will help you make decisions and focus on a specific desired outcome. It can also help you remove distractions and focus on what is important. Robbins says to focus, feel, question the meaning, and take action. The same is true for family get-togethers. What is the focus that you want your guests to have when they enter the room? If there is not a specific focus, you have already lost control. What feeling do you want them to have when they enter the event and when they leave the event? Plan around the desired outcome that you want for your event. 

Many years ago, I had the realization that some of my guests show up once a year to receive gifts and they leave. They did not call, write, or visit throughout the year. They just showed up to receive gifts and left the event early. After a few years of this, I had to put a stop to it because that behavior was causing much stress on my other guests. The next year, I let them know ahead of time that we would not have a gift exchange. We wanted presence more than presents. Interestingly, those guests stopped coming. They haven’t come to the event for years, and that is okay. It is important to give yourself permission to establish boundaries and protect yourself. This was a big struggle at first because one of my guests shows her love through gift giving and she felt like she wasn’t loving others if she wasn’t buying them something. The second year that we did this, she started to see that she was being used by those seeking her “love” through gifts. The third year, she was more than okay with not having a big event with gift giving. And, now, many years later, that same guest is finding that she enjoys her time with the people that come more because it is more about presence than presents. This was intentional and it helped to make the event more meaningful and much less stressful.

Set the Mood

Edgar Schein said, “The only thing of real importance that leaders do is to create and manage culture. If you do not manage culture, it manages you, and you may not even be aware of the extent to which this is happening.” The same is true with family gatherings. If I permit my guests to talk about sensitive topics, gossip, or behave in certain ways then the same will be expected at the next event. Instead, right the wrongs ahead of time and be consistent. This may include calling specific people and letting them know they need to tone it down or not inviting certain people if they cannot behave. 

If there is an expectation that some of your guests will be vocal about like a recent government mandate, I recommend addressing the elephant in the room right up front. We had a local gathering during the COVID-19 pandemic and emotions were high from some that refused to wear masks and others that followed the order willingly. To address the issue, we sent an invitation to everyone and let them know of the mandate. We also explained that some guests are on both ends of the spectrum and we expect all guests to respect one another and not make a big deal of it. When we arrived, it was fine. No one raised the issue and guests felt freedom to choose if they wear their mask or not.

At first, this may sound burdensome. It could be construed as a micromanaging approach to planning every minute of the event. The thought may be that if I don’t plan it, someone else will. And, regardless of how much time and effort is spent preparing for possible problems, there is just not any way to account for them all. However, it is worthwhile to think strategically about event planning. It may take time to find a good balance between over-planning and not planning at all. However, it is worth it. And, don’t feel like you need to do this all alone. 

For example, one year for Thanksgiving I wanted to cultivate a culture of counting our blessings. Before the event, I let everyone know we would write down a blessing or vocalize a blessing that has happened that year. This gave them time to prepare. For some guests, this was silly. For others, they took the bull by the horn and ran with it. The more you can involve other people in the planning and facilitation stage of the event, the more they feel like they have a purpose. This can be very exciting as you see the one guest that always falls asleep on the couch take action and organize a game of Bingo, Bunco, Pictionary, or even a Scavenger Hunt. A good resource to help you learn how to recruit help is titled Ask for It: How Women Can Use the Power of Negotiation to Get What They Really Want by Babcock and Laschever. While it is a book for women, I have recommended this book to plenty of men too. 

Set Realistic Expectations and Boundaries

Part of the planning process is to set expectations. When setting realistic expectations, think about a desirable outcome that could really happen. I caution you to not be too lenient or easy on the expectations, but to stretch your goals just a bit so they are still attainable. In other words, what would your dream event look like. Some like to look at this in three ways. First, if time and money (and any other factor) were not an issue, what could your event look and feel like for you and your guests? What would their takeaway be? What would you feel like before, during, and after the evet? That first dream is likely unattainable, but it helps to set the stage as one end of the spectrum. Second, knowing that time and money (and other factors) do play into the equation, what could your event look and feel like for you and your guests? What would their takeaway be? Be specific. Will they arrive on time? What is the expected dress code? Will you wait for them for dinner? Is it okay for guests to bring pets? Is it okay for guests to criticize your cooking? Is it expected that guests will leave better off than when they showed up? And, third, what outcome would I be okay with? It may not be ideal, but I could live with it and feel good knowing I did my best. Please write all three of these scenarios down and be specific. 

Henry Cloud and John Townsend wrote a book called Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life. This book is powerful and can help us see if relationships are healthy or toxic. It can also help us to stop the hemorrhaging of unhealthy relationships; you know those that take a toll on your mental and physical health. Having a boundary with each guest that comes to the event will help you know how far you will let them go, what you will tolerate, and what you won’t tolerate. I encourage you to think through this as you write out your guest list. Again, be specific with the boundary and physically draw a line with what is acceptable on one side and what is unacceptable on the other side. 

While setting expectations, don’t be afraid to write down and post the ground rules. Now that you have examined your guest list and those feelings that conjure up with each name, you can start your list of rules. This may sound elementary or childish, but this type of activity is actually very healthy and can prevent major and minor disasters from happening. It can also put other guests at ease because they will know what is allowed and what is not allowed. Some may find it helpful to post the list for all to see; whereas, some will write the list for specific people and have a separate meeting with them to let them know of the expectations. Others will write the list and keep it private as a way for them to personally know what is expected. I recommend posting the list for all to see and keep it up yea-round as a reminder for all guests to know what is generally acceptable.

Instead of making a long list of what your guests should not do, try to come up with positive ways to manage the event. And, keep the list neutral so one guest does not feel singled out. 

  1. Respect People: We all have differences, but at the core, we are all human. 
  2. Have Fun: Remember, if everyone is not laughing, it’s not that funny. 
  3. Refrain from talking about politics. 

I’ve seen where some people get very creative with their lists, so they are more fun and lighthearted, yet still communicate the expectations. You’ll have to gauge your specific event to know if it will work better to be straightforward with clear communication or if you can beat around the bush a little and still have the same effect. For example, we could add a couple of the fun rules below.

  1. Don’t get your tinsel in a tangle!
  2. The Elf on the Shelf is watching—Don’t be naughty; be nice!
  3. Laugh out loud!

Respect Human Dignity

Douglas Hicks wrote Religion and the Workplace: Pluralism, Spirituality, Leadership. In this book, he talks about respecting human dignity and uses the theory of Respectful Pluralism. I take this to mean that each and every person is different. Some are short. Some are tall. Some have different color skin. Some have different experiences with white-collar or blue-collar work. People have different levels of education. Some have different health concerns. Some have disabilities. Some guests will be male and others will be female. Ultimately, we are all different or unique in our own special ways. To include all people, we need to distill this down to respecting all people for the sake of human dignity. If we can remember that, we can usually include others without excluding anyone. 

Courageous Conversations

Tim Tebow used the phrase “Courageous Conversation” in his book Shaken. He explained that he has had the most growth from people that come alongside him to have the “talk” that needs to happen. It takes courage to call your guests ahead of time and ask them to behave a certain way. But, when that phone call is couched with love and compassion, it can be a very impactful conversation.

With this conversation, I encourage you to set expectations again. If the “talk” goes well, what could happen? If the “talk” does not go well, what could happen? I have had several conversations like this in the past that blew up in my face and I am okay with that. I know that I went into that conversation with facts (not hearsay) and love. I used “I statements” to explain how their behavior made me feel. This helps so there is not blame placed on the other person where they will feel defensive. And, I asked permission before speaking so I had an invite to share my thoughts.

Even if all of this goes as planned, the outcome may be that this guest will not attend the event. They may not attend several events. However, we are called to be honest and we have the right to protect ourselves and others. If this courageous conversation is needed, it should be justified by knowing it will hurt people if the “talk” does not take place, and it will “help” people if the conversation does happen. 

At the end of the day, we cannot make all people happy. That is unrealistic. However, we can lay down in our bed at night and reflect on the day to know “I did my best.” When it comes to celebrations and holidays, my recommendation is to be intentional, set the mood, set realistic expectations and boundaries, respect human dignity, and have those courageous conversations when needed. 

Dr. Debra J. Dean is a Christian, wife, mother, daughter, and entrepreneur. She was born and raised in Kentucky, spent nine years in Iowa, and currently resides in Colorado with her husband Steve and their youngest son Gavin. In total, they have six amazing children and four wonderful grandchildren. Dr. Dean spent 25 years in corporate and is now the foremost expert on integrating Faith at Work. She was awarded the 2020 Women of Influence by The Colorado Springs Business Journal and the 2020 Winner of Most Influential Business Consultancy CEO (USA) by Global CEO Excellence Awards. She is President and CEO of Dean Business Consulting, where she coaches, consults, mentors, and trains others on ways to nourish souls at work. She was nominated as one of three top operational excellence leaders with OPEX Week Business Transformation World Summit 2019. She received the 2018 Outstanding Reviewer award for the Management, Spirituality, and Religion (MSR) community. She was nominated as a top female leader with her previous global workplace where her research efforts elevated employee engagement to some of the highest levels in the multinational organization. And she has been included in Biltmore’s Who’s Who of Women Business Leaders, Continental Who’s Who of National Business Leaders, and Who’s Who Among University Students. Her mission is to inspire each person to identify their human potential and pursue authenticity while living a life of eternal focus.