By Ruth Cummins
As office parties, family and social gatherings, and holiday trips ramp up, there’s often a reason not to be merry: awkward or potentially contentious situations can spoil the fun.
And, family squabbles or offensive words can do more than take away the joy. They can result in long-term harm between people who may or may not get along in the first place.
How can you avoid the fireworks, including if you don’t see them coming?
“What I tell people is that before you get into that setting, identify what role you want to play in the relationship with the person” who could potentially cause conflict, said Dr. Danny Burgess, associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior.
“It’s important to remember you don’t have to participate in every argument or disagreement you are invited into,” said Dr. Nick McAfee, an assistant professor in Psychiatry and Human Behavior.
“You may know ahead of time one of your family members likes to stir the pot, and you can set an intention to stay on the sideline or shift your attention elsewhere.”
McAfee is the director of UMMC’s Student Counseling and Wellness Center. The holidays can bring stressful challenges for students returning home whose choices clash with that of family members.
“Mostly with my medical students, I talk with them about going home for the holidays and their parents might not like who they’re dating,” Burgess said. “That can be a huge complicating factor for those who are beginning to be more open and expressive, and their families aren’t as supportive.”
Whatever the disagreement, “if that person isn’t open and receptive to discussing an issue at hand in a respectful manner, you can’t change that person during a Christmas dinner,” Burgess said. “You’ll need to decide what your role will be.”
Best efforts to avoid issues likely to cause conflict, be it politics or a nasty divorce or past hurts, can fail. In that case, “you need to decide how much you are willing to endure and tolerate with this person, and what your boundary will be after that,” Burgess said. “It’s really about coming prepared on how to handle a situation when you feel like you can’t tolerate it anymore.”
That includes an exit plan. “It might mean leaving earlier than you would and not storming out,” he said. “Have reasons in place for leaving early. Or, go outside the house. Go drive around. Shop or run errands. If you don’t come up with plans, you feel stuck and those emotions will keep building. If you don’t feel like you can escape, then you explode, and it turns into an argument or a fight.”
Another strategy: “I’d recommend focusing on commonalities when thinking about how to interact with family members,” McAfee said. “No matter how different you may perceive others to be, you likely have many things in common you can discuss. Sometimes, it takes an intentional focus to find the shared good rather than the perceived negatives.”
And, remember the potholes along the way, they advise.” Sometimes it’s easy to opt for another glass of wine to cope with social anxiety or the stress of being around family,” McAfee said. “Keep in mind that one too many may lead to unintended consequences – for example, saying something you wish you could take back, or ruining the next day with a hangover.
“It may be best to set a limit ahead of time, and have some water in between each of your alcoholic drinks.”
When it comes to personal attacks or other bad behavior, Burgess said, boundaries can be subjective.
“What you might tolerate is way more than another person can handle,” he said. “You’ve got to figure out your boundaries in terms of what they say about me, my partner, religion or another sensitive issue. How much makes me feel disrespected?
“Some family members say a lot of things out of complete ignorance,” he said. “They might get a bigger boundary. Say it’s your great-grandmother. She doesn’t know anything else but this. There might be leeway with someone like her, but other family members can be intentional with their disrespect. Their boundary might be one and done.”
Know what rules you’re going to play by, and how much you’re willing to tolerate or endure. Have a plan in place rather than trying to figure it out in the moment.
“In those moments of conflict and tension, you’re emotional,” Burgess said. “Identify on the front end what the boundaries are for you.”