By William Webber, Belief.Net – 02/17/2005 – 12:00am
Before the pumpkin pie gets thrown across the dinner table, read these tips for keeping the peace in your family.
The holidays are coming, the holidays are coming! Christmas is almost here and New Year’s Eve is right around the corner. According to the popular wisdom, this is a time when we all put aside our differences, political and otherwise, and extended families come together in love and harmony.
Well, not exactly. Some people just won’t let it go. In too many American households this year, just beneath the refined veneer of the best dishes and silverware, some politically polarized family members will be sitting at the table, just lying in wait for a perfect moment between the turkey and the pumpkin pie to erupt and begin a political debate. So what can a person do when much-loved relatives who voted differently come from near or far to fill your house? Here are a few tips.
1. For some families it may be as easy as having a family meeting or talking on the telephone. It is possible that everyone will agree that they have had enough of political arguments, and that no family member would likely change their mind, regardless of what is said. An agreement could be reached to keep this year’s holidays from becoming black and blue because of red and blue arguments.
2. Don’t blame your mother-in-law for your winter blues. Realize holidays can be stressors for everyone, including yourself. Family get-togethers can be emotionally, physically, and psychologically draining. So try to get enough rest. You can do much to set a positive tone if you are feeling cheerful, your mind is clear and you are upbeat with others. And prepare yourself with prayer so that you can be a catalyst for a warm family gathering.
3. Don’t sweat the small stuff. It is so easy to read negative connotations into comments that may not have been intended to upset you or others. Don’t panic at the first political remark. Chances are that if you let it go, other family members will too.
4. Resolve not to overreact. Stephen R. Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Families, points out that people establish behavioral habits in their youth. They have learned that when they act in a certain way they will usually get a predictable response. So when a family member begins what usually leads to an argument, don’t give him the feedback he expects. “Without the feedback the behavioral habit becomes fruitless,” Covey observes. And often the discussion will just come to an end.
5. But if Uncle Joe is determined to lead a family civil war by pitting reds against blues, try outwitting him. Keep in mind that Uncle Joe can probably outgun you if you argue politics. Quiet diplomacy is usually best, like changing the subject. “Be careful not to do it without letting the other person finish what he was trying to say,” Sue Fox, author of Etiquette for Dummies, warns, “or you risk being labeled the one who barely listens.” Asking a question is usually effective — other uncomfortable family members will probably jump at the chance to talk about something else.
Try, “Uncle Joe, your point is well taken. But today is for family. Mary, tell us about your vacation last month.” Uncle Joe may not give up easily, so fill your arsenal with personal questions to keep various family members talking about themselves rather than politics. Ask Jane about her hobby, Charles about his soccer team, Will about his work. People love talking about themselves and will be thankful you gave them a chance. Ask leading questions, and be ready with follow up questions if necessary to keep the conversation flowing. And don’t forget Uncle Joe. He may enjoy sharing about other things than politics.
6. Enlist a co-conspirator or maybe two or three. Other family members probably dread hearing a rehash of political arguments and watching relatives battle for the honor of their opinions as much as you do. Let them join you in changing the subject, and keeping it changed.
7. Try a little humor. Remember arguments usually build. Most of the time it is not instant fury. More often one talking point is stated, refuted by someone else, leading to the rolling out of other talking points, with feelings getting more heated with each exchange. Try to head the process off before it begins by responding in a nondefensive way. Don’t argue with the other person’s point of view. Your strategy is to intervene before people become emotionally invested and tempers build. One way to intervene is to say with a twinkle in your eye, “Let’s keep that thought until after dinner when the men gather in the library to smoke their cigars.” Or some other ridiculous suggestion.
8. Or try separate rooms. If you have a subset who just can’t resist the topic create the equivalent of men in the smoking room. Give them a place to go and let them go to it—away from those who’d rather not. Fill the time with constructive alternatives. Spend time at the dinner table counting blessings and having each person share some things for which they are thankful.
10. At any holiday celebration ask everyone to share a cherished memory of holidays past. Don’t ask for a favorite memory. Some people have a hard time choosing one memory that is “the best” from a lifetime of events. Explain it can be big or little, a gift, something that happened or even holiday food. It could be from childhood or adult years. The individual may have been the giver or the receiver. Keep it informal and a part of the casual conversation so it seems like a fun time rather than a required assignment.
Relationships. Don’t you just love them? Sometimes, despite your best efforts, it may be impossible for everyone to just get along. Some relatives may be like Ben Affleck in the movie Surviving Christmas. Director Mike Mitchell said Ben was just great at being annoying. Does that remind you of someone in your family? Perhaps in the future researchers may discover there is something in our DNA that affects relationships and science may discover the remedy. Until then remember you are not responsible for solving all your family’s relationship problems. But if you make the effort to remind yourself and others of the bonds of love and history that unite you, you can make a difference.