How to Survive the Holidays

Oren Jay Sofer
December 5, 2018

Spending time with family members over the holidays—the season of “good will to all” —can often be seriously challenging. Family gatherings can reveal a widening canyon of personal, political, and cultural differences, and table conversations can often halt in tense silence or devolve into explosive argument. Instead of gritting your teeth and drinking more eggnog, here are five tips to stay sane during the holiday season.

1. Set clear intentions

Staying balanced during challenging moments takes preparation. One of the strongest factors in mental training is intention, the motivation in the heart that impels us to speak, act or pause. By keeping intentions like patience, kindness, or curiosity in mind, actions can be guided by values rather than immediate reactions.

This year, take some time reflect on your intentions before you gather with family members (or co-workers, or anyone else for that matter). Consider how you want to show up and the values that inspire your best speech and action. In your meditation, feel the strength of your commitment to those values.

2. Prepare some key phrases

It’s easier to respond to a snarky comment or a loaded question if you come prepared with a few key phrases. What’s come up at past gatherings? With hindsight, how do you wish you would have responded? Write down a few phrases that you can use in case something similar happens. This could include changing the subject, setting limits, or anything else you might have difficulty finding words for in the moment.

Here are a few favorites:

“I’m not sure. I’d prefer to talk about that some other time.”

“There’s a lot in what you just said. I need a moment to gather my thoughts.”

“I’m not in the best frame of mind to talk about that right now. How about we…”

“Things feel really heated. Let’s take a break on this topic for a little while.”

Intention and preparation are two tips for ahead-of-time. How about during the gathering itself?

3. Find your ground

An effective way to stay calm in the face of family turmoil is staying grounded in the midst of a challenging situation. One of the most reliable ways to get grounded is to feel the weight of your body. The mind can go a thousand miles an hour, the heart may race with surges of emotion, but the body is always right here. Feel your feet on the floor, the warmth in your hands, or the contact with the chair. It’s a small trick that can make a big difference.

4. Get curious and listen for needs

Perhaps the most important thing we can do to ease tensions, build trust, and turn a conversation around is to get genuinely curious. Instead of focusing on the things you disagree with, try to get interested.

Here’s the premise: at the core, all human beings share the same basic, fundamental needs. We all want to be happy, to be understood, to have meaning, and more (here’s one such list of core human needs). We just disagree about how to get there. When we identify what really matters we find shared humanity.

So, when a conflict arises, try to get underneath the views and opinions. What’s important to this person? What are the core human needs that lie beneath the contentious opinions? Genuinely listening for another’s values can go a long way to bridging the gap.

5. Argue mindfully

While you may want to do your best to get along, it’s important to know your own limits. Sometimes, speaking up really is important for our integrity.

If you do so, it’s possible to speak out against dangerous rhetoric or harmful actions without degrading anyone. Instead of blaming the other person, diagnosing or labeling them, speak from your heart about how you feel and why. For example: “I feel disturbed by what you’re saying. I want everyone to be treated with respect regardless of their (nationality, skin color, gender, sexual orientation, ability…).” By staying with your own feelings, rather than imputing feelings to someone else, you can minimize conflict when it arises.

For each of these five tips, it’s important to let go of the outcome. There can be great value in debate and critical conversation, the conditions of a holiday gathering often aren’t supportive for a meaningful exchange. So, keep your aims modest. Trying to change the other person’s mind rarely supports dialogue. Instead, focus on how you’re having the conversation. Are you creating the conditions for mutual respect and understanding? Are you embodying your values regardless of the other person’s behavior?

You’re unlikely to solve the climate crisis over dinner, but you might deepen your relationship with your climate-denying uncle if you can find a way to really listen and share ideas. And that builds the condition that, one day, might help your uncle open up as well. In the end, our ability to engage with care and respect is often more effective than finding the right words.

Happy Holidays!

Oren’s book, filled with useful tools and practices for better, kinder communication, is now available. Sharon Salzberg calls it “a powerful guidebook to thinking, listening, and speaking with care. Bravo!”

Oren Jay Sofer is a nationally recognized teacher of meditation, mindfulness and Nonviolent Communication and a regular contributor to the Ten Percent Happier app. A member of the Spirit Rock Teachers Council, he holds a degree in Comparative Religion from Columbia University, is the author of Say What You Mean: A Mindful Approach to Nonviolent Communication, and is the co-author of Teaching Mindfulness to Empower Adolescents. Oren also teaches online courses in Mindful Communication. Social: @Orenjaysofer

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