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10 tips for communicating at Christmas

|||  —  14/12/23

1. Remember, the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour.

Be prepared, don’t be surprised. Rather than expecting someone to change, hoping they don’t say or do that thing, or playing over in your mind how angry they will make you, accept that this is who they are and don’t be surprised by their actions.

This isn’t about giving someone a green light to behave poorly or to say hurtful and offensive things, but it is about changing how you react to that behaviour and reducing the power it has over you. Be prepared for them to do what they’ve always done and have a response ready to go.

2. Own your power to choose your response.

Speaking of responses, we always have a choice about how we respond to other people, we just forget it sometimes. Make a conscious decision about how you want to show up this Christmas and challenge yourself to stick to it. Take personal responsibility for your own communication and behaviour, work hard to regulate yourself, and don’t let someone else ruin your day.

If something does upset you, make a decision about whether to say something or to let it go. Saying something and getting upset is fine – if it’s a conscious choice and if you stay true to the person you want to be (there are no bad emotions – it’s how you express them that matters). Letting it go is fine too, as long as you do just that: Let it go and move on.

3. Put a pause between your reaction and your response.

If you do decide to respond to something that you disagree with or want to call out, take a deep breath first so that you have a better chance of responding rather than simply reacting with all emotion and no thought.

You may even need to ask for a pause in the conversation to consider your response, or a physical break to remove yourself and calm down. If you do that, try to regulate your withdrawal rather than storm off in a huff. For example, “You’ve caught me a bit off guard – I’m going to take some time to consider that before I come back to you.”

4. Depersonalise and empathise.

Get curious, not furious. Often someone’s meltdown or snarky comment has nothing to do with you and everything to do with how they’re travelling. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes and consider what might be going on for them. Ask questions, listen, and try to understand where they’re coming from. Remind yourself that some people are struggling more than others. We all have different experiences, perspectives, mindsets, values and stories, and we respond to challenges in different ways. 

5. Use ‘I’ statements to have difficult conversations or deal with conflict without sounding aggressive or confrontational.

‘I’ statements acknowledge that what you’re saying is your perception, not necessarily universal fact (you have an opinion on what’s right and the other person may have a different opinion on what’s right).

Go for “I disagree” or “I appreciate you have a different opinion to me” rather than “you’re wrong”; and try “I’m sure it wasn’t your intention, but I find that question quite rude,” rather than “You’re a prick”.

6. Agree to disagree.

This is one of the quickest and most effective ways to defuse a heated conversation, particularly when discussing emotive topics like politics, religion or social justice issues. If you’re poles apart with someone, neither of you is going to change your mind based on a dinner table debate, so agree to disagree and move on.

7. Say no decisively and politely:

“No thank you, I don’t want dessert.” (Ok, so I wouldn’t say that, but you get the picture.)

8. Be a broken record.

Have a key message and stick to it, rather than getting sucked into a conversation you don’t want to have, over-explaining or justifying yourself. Think about your message before an event. Perhaps: “I’m happily single right now” or “I appreciate you’ve got a strong opinion on that but I don’t want to discuss it”. Repeat your message in response to those persistent questions and people will quickly see that you won’t be drawn and move on.

9. Use humour.

When Uncle John says, “Ooooh, no alcohol. We all know what that means – wink, wink, nudge, nudge”, try quipping back something like, “We sure do – no hangover!”. Just be careful sarcasm doesn’t cross over into passive-aggressive.

Or, if you want to be assertive, go back to point five and the ‘I’ statement. Maybe Uncle John is genuinely oblivious to the fact his comment is inappropriate and potentially hurtful, and you want to let him know so he thinks before he speaks in future. “I’m sure it wasn’t your intention…” is often a great intro.

10. Seek common ground.

And finally, remind each other why you’re there: “You know what? Today’s about fun, family and connection. How about we leave this topic for another time?”

It’s Christmas after all.

Leah Mether is a communication and soft skills trainer obsessed with making the people part of leadership and work life easier.

With more than 15 years’ experience working with thousands of clients, and an acclaimed book to her name, Leah knows what it takes to communicate under pressure. Like you, she knows the challenge of conflict, personality clashes, and difficult conversations.

Leah is renowned for her practical, engaging, straight-shooting style. Utilising her Five Cs® model of communication, she helps leaders and teams shift from knowing to doing, and radically improve their effectiveness.

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