Building Connection, not Conflict in Holiday Gatherings

It’s the classic joke, isn’t it.  The relationship dramas that hit the headlines during holiday gatherings?

“There are some things we can change, and some we can’t,” we tell ourselves.  And even if we’re not the praying type, we send up our desperate appeals to all the gods that may be, that this time will be different, will be better.

Outside of actual divine intervention, I’m interested in what we ourselves can do to make our own experience better.  And perhaps even make it better for others.

One of my favorite mantras:  I can’t change others.  But I can change myself.  And if I change, everything changes.

Here’s my Top 10 List for Making Your Holiday Gathering the Best It Can Be!

  1. Give yourself the freedom to not go/not host.
    There’s nothing that undermines our happy place faster than feeling we have to do something we dread or hate.  By giving yourself permission to not go or not host, you have the opportunity to clean out your own emotional blackmailing of yourself, and to let go of what doesn’t work for you.  Then you are freed up to have and do what really brings you joy in your holiday!

    Don’t fill your precious time with “have-to’s!”  Plus, it’s always amazing how everyone else feels a sense of relief when we have the guts to go first, and pull out of the obligation we feel–no more emotional blackmail.

  2. Consider why you’re going/hosting, and only be authentic with yourself.
    If your going/hosting isn’t for reasons of your heart, consider not doing the event.  Or change your heart so you can be sincere and authentic with yourself.

    Even if it is good or important to go/host, you should never do it if you aren’t clear in your own heart about it.  So much drama happens when we do things we aren’t 100% authentic and sincere about.  So your choices are to pull out, or to work on that change of heart and motivation in order to get yourself fully sincere in what you’re going to do.  (See the rest of this list for help)

  3. If you feel you’re stuck with the gathering this late in the game, then don’t be a complainer– If you’re going to do it, Choose All-In.

    In other words:  Don’t be a damn victim crybaby.  I have a motto I put in place for myself many years ago.  If I am going to do something, it is 100% my choice.  Even if I hate it.  I have no one else to blame since it’s my choice.  The up-side of this is that I am never a victim of what I do or don’t do–because it’s my choice.  It is amazing how much better we can feel in nearly anysituation, when we know we made the choice ourselves.  If you’re going to do it, choose it!

  4. Process on your hot-button topics beforethe gathering.
    Are you telling negative stories or positive ones?  Are you setting yourself up for a Mt. Vesuvius-scale family eruption, or are you actively planning for fun and connection?  Though it’s not all in your hands (or on your shoulders, for that matter), you can figure out your own hot-button topics before the event.  Then do some serious processing work on them so they become more neutral to you.

    Ex:  If you know you’re going to get harassed about not being married, breaking up, taking a job, quitting college, etc, find your own clarity and sense of self about it first.  If you’re in a good place with yourself, it’s much harder for someone to make it into an issue!  Then figure out your calm phrase to neutralize whatever is thrown at you, like, “I keep proposing to people but then they find out about you guys, and I never hear from them again!”  Make it humorous if you can.

    On the subject, not taking ourselves so seriously, and making things funny is a fantastic way to travel smoothly through the rapids of any holiday gathering.

  5. Plan your topic detours ahead of time.
    Never talk politics or religion, right?  But then what do we talk about?  The time you spend figuring out how to direct the people you know into conversations you know they will enjoy and be invested in… IS. WORTH. EVERYTHING.  It becomes quickly evident to others when we are deeply interested in them–and we love this.  Try to find avenues of conversation that intersect your interests and theirs.  Find ways to build others up authentically and naturally in your conversations.  When people feel seen, understood and appreciated, they respond well.

    Even with people you agree with on the hot-button topics, discussing these topics doesn’t really engender deep connection in the precious time we spend, and usually ends up leaving us feeling empty.  Wouldn’t it be better to know someone more deeply because we asked about their lives, their past, what they dream about or wish for, what’s been hard for them (as we listen closely), what music they like, or movies/series they saw recently.  Being prepared with how to expertly direct the conversations to what make others feel connected and important is a game-winner!

  6. Let go of the outcomes.  I mean it.  LET GO!
    When you choose to go and you know it is your choice, then you have to let go of whatever the outcomes are from going.  It is amazing how much grief and drama are created because we walk into intimate gatherings with hidden expectations.  When those expectations aren’t met, we begin to have negative feelings of different kinds.  It can be the difference between a neutral conversation about cranberry sauce and the cranberry sauce being the symbol of everything wrong with that person!  Our expectations are the silent ninjas in our interactions, wreaking havoc on our peace of mind until we finally explode and cause real damage.

    Get clear on your expectations long before your gathering.  Then take them apart one-by-one until you have no expectations when you go.  This single step can change your entire experience–and everyone else’s–for the better!

  7. See the child in everyone.
    One of the magic games I play when I’m out in the world is to see the child. Whether it is a homeless person, the cashier, my colleague, the aggravating customer service rep, or the people closest to me at a holiday gathering…  When I see the child, I instantly have a deeper understanding of the person I am looking at.  This understanding can mean everything when we are confronting difficult relationship history, personality clashes, or people’s choices we don’t like.  Seeing the child in another opens our heart.  And from an understanding heart, we can find a way through even the most heartbreaking or frustrating moments in our holiday gatherings–and in life
  8. Connect beforehand.
    If there’s baggage and bad history with others you’re going to see, chances are good they are expecting conflicts.  If you reach out beforehand with simple positive texts, an email or two, or a quick little voice message that says you’re really looking forward to seeing them and hearing what they’ve been up to in their life, it can cause a subtle and crucial shift in expectations.  If you’re not afraid or upset about seeing them, it let’s a lot of pressure off the meeting, right?!

    “But I don’t feel that way, Carmell!  I can’t lie if that’s not how I feel.”  Of course.  So for myself, I have to practice forgiving our differences before I reach out.  When you forgive their differences, you make it ok for each of you to be exactly yourselves.  And a possible pathway forward to have a better experience is opened up.

    An important note:  This does not apply to situations where someone has violated you.  You cannot forgive differences when this has occurred.  A violation of our self is not the same as disagreeing on politics or someone not accepting another’s sexual orientation.  Instead, you should find what your healthiest boundary is–particularly if it is not attending at all–and honor that boundary for yourself.  Your first responsibility is to your own safety and peace.

  9. Plantime for yourself–and hold to it.
    I love this one!  It is a real game-changer.  When you go to a holiday gathering whether a few hours or a few days, plan time for just you.  When you know ahead of time that you are taking time for yourself while you’re in a situation that could be challenging for you, you have automatically given yourself a healthy boundary.  We can stay calmer, centered, clear-headed and good-humored when we pre-plan and then follow through with taking ourselves out of the situation, as planned, for periods of time.  This is a classic self-soothing technique, and it works like freaking magic.

    A lovely little side benefit I’ve found is that by taking that time for me, I automatically become an influence of calm, relaxed presence, fun, and careful listening for others–which makes the whole experience smoother for everyone!

  10. Be helpful where it’s needed!
    There’s a difference between nervous hovering and calm helping. Don’t be helpful to try to avoid conflict.  Rather, be helpful regardless of what the situations are.  When you are showing up to help in real ways, small frustrations can be allayed, allowing everyone to have a smoother experience.  For example, when I continually clean up the kitchen at my family reunions, the cleaner kitchen has a calming effect on all the family who are in and out of the kitchen making meals all day long.

    We can always watch and find ways to be helpful.  Sometimes it is taking the ‘problem person’ into personal conversation so that others can have the wonderful connected conversation they want to have.  Sometimes, it is being behind the scenes organizing so others feel more relaxed.  Sometimes, it’s running errands, or picking people up, or running a load of laundry, or seeing people warmly out the door so whoever’s hosting can do what they need to do.  Being helpful always creates a deeper calm, and opens more possibilities for real connection!

A last thought on this.  Everything I’ve listed in my Top 10 is based in being honest and authentic with ourselves, and practicing showing up from our hearts.  There have been a few times where I show with my best, and it’s just bad.  There’s no shifting the direction of the river.  And further, I’ve felt it undermining my own peace and sense of self.  You don’t need to stay. It’s always alright to quietly leave.  

Some “times” just aren’t our times.  Some groups just aren’t our groups.  Some situations just don’t fit us, and we know we would be better being with ourselves than in that spot.  Being honest and authentic with ourselves means honoring our own gut wisdom when something isn’t right for us, without creating a story around it.

So before everything gets crazy, get clear on what you want your holidays to be for you.  Describe them to yourself.  Then make each decision based on fulfilling that clarity.  Have the holiday moments and spaces that feed your soul in the best ways

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