Home for the Holidays? Don’t Be Afraid to Walk Away from Conflict

Overhead view of four people standing apart decorating Christmas treeHolidays may be the only times during the year we place ourselves in confined spaces with the very people we dread seeing the most. Places where we’re compared to siblings or cousins, we’re reminded of the things we’re most embarrassed of, and we’re expected to fit back into the skins we shed years ago.

We’re asked probing questions such as, “Why aren’t you married/divorced yet?” “You’re not really going to let your kids do that, are you?” or, “No one’s seen you at services lately, what’s wrong with you?”

Even seemingly benign statements are often really just masked sarcasm to those in the know, like, “They seem happy” (i.e., “I’m sure they can’t be, in that nontraditional relationship”) or “My, you look healthy” (i.e., “That’s some weight you’ve gained!”) or, “Nice new car” (i.e., “You still owe me $50 from two years ago”).

No one has perfect relatives, and no holiday event goes off without a hitch. Even so, holiday memories can be special treasures if skirmishes can be minimized. The only person any of us can control is ourselves (such a bummer, but true). Plan ahead by getting rest before the event, don’t get too hungry (we all get grumpy, not just the kids), and don’t overindulge in alcohol.

The following are tips to cut conflict short if you’re confronted at a holiday gathering:

Allow yourself to be misunderstood.

One of the ways arguments start is by a loved one saying something about you that you believe is not true (“You were disrespectful,” “You didn’t do your share,” “You were rude,” etc.). If you can allow that person to “see” you wrong (at least for a few days), you may be able to keep yourself from reacting in a defensive way or getting snagged into exhaustive explaining why they’re wrong, and then trying to convince them to see you “correctly.”

Remember, this won’t be the last chance you’ll have to set the record straight.

The second trap is believing this will be the last time you’ll have the opportunity to be understood. If you don’t get them to understand you right now, you’ll never have another chance and you’ll be alienated forever, looked down on by your loved ones for the rest of your life. This panicked urgency feeds arguments and leads to heated exchanges. There will be another chance to tell your side, if by phone, email, or text. Be willing to wait.

Don’t respond with a question.

“How could you say that?” “Who told you that?” or, “Why are you asking me that?” all lead to more arguments and escalate the conflict. Don’t demand “proof” or substantiating evidence.

Be prepared ahead of time.

Walking into a potentially volatile event and trusting yourself not to take the bait when a friend of the family or relative strikes requires skill. Having a few phrases practiced and ready can make all the difference.

Whenever you are able to disengage from an argument or potential argument, compliment yourself. It isn’t easy to not fall back into familiar patterns.

Responses to cut an argument short:

“Oh, you could be right.”

“I’ve never looked at it that way.”

“You might have a point.”

“I’m sorry you feel like that.”

“Let’s talk about this later.”

“Right now I have to go …”

“Let me think about it.”

“I understand.”

“You seem upset by this.”

“I’m sorry.”

Don’t give away your serenity.

You don’t have to attend every fight you’re invited to. People can say unfeeling things when they’re tired, hungry, anxious (who’s not a little anxious?), ill, going through a loss or a life transition, or under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Find a way to not personalize snarky remarks. Ask yourself if it’s really worth your time and energy.

You can’t defend yourself into being respected.

Providing evidence and defending yourself only places you “one down” from your accuser. There is no amount of evidence that will change a verbally abusive person’s behavior. The more you defend, the more insecure/guilty you appear.

Don’t give an instigator your undivided, emotionally charged attention.

Bullies, the intoxicated, and the immature will often feel bored. Stirring up trouble by starting a fight and seeing who they can get to may be way of fighting their boredom. You can’t win these arguments because the primary motivation is to create drama and excitement. All you can do is disengage and walk away.

Don’t be baited into returning to an argument.

Stop me if you’ve heard any of these:

“Yeah, just walk away. I knew you didn’t care!”

“You clearly don’t care as much as I do. At least I’m willing to work this out to the end!”

“You always quit. No wonder you can’t get anywhere!”

“You think you’re so cool! You’re not better than anyone!”

Don’t defend yourself. Don’t turn around. Just keep walking into another room, outside, or to your car.

Whenever you are able to disengage from an argument or potential argument, compliment yourself. It isn’t easy to not fall back into familiar patterns. Have a little celebration in your thoughts whenever you’re successful!

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  • Larry T

    Larry T

    December 13th, 2017 at 11:20 AM

    Sounds like the trick is really to not let people get under your skin, or let yourself get drawn into some weird familial power struggle (who hasn’t been in one of those around the holidays right?). I guess that’s easier said than done. I’m going to try some of those phrases to de-escalate and see if they can help.

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