Communication at Christmas can be fraught at the best of times.

But this year, after the cluster-f…storm that has been 2020, the potential for conflict is higher than usual, with many people stumbling towards the finish line exhausted, traumatised, and polarised in their opinions.

Tolerance levels are low, tempers short, stress levels high, and patience virtually non-existent.

Many of us are not at our best and when we’re not at our best, our communication is not at its best either.

So how can we make it through this holiday season with our relationships with family, friends and colleagues intact? How can we communicate effectively when we’re so on edge?

To help you out, I’ve dusted off my 10 strategies for managing difficult conversations at Christmas and given them a 2020 update. Here they are:

10 strategies for managing difficult conversations at Christmas

1. Own your power to choose your response. We always have a choice about how we respond to other people, we just forget it sometimes. Don’t give your power away. This isn’t about other people, it’s about you and the sort of communicator you want to be. 

That doesn’t mean you don’t get angry or upset – it simply means if you do, you own that as a conscious choice. If something does upset you, make a decision about whether to say something assertively or to let it go. Letting it go is fine, as long as you do just that: Let it go and move on. Don’t default to passive-aggressive.

2. Put a pause between your reaction and your response. When we respond immediately, we tend to react emotionally without thought, which doesn’t always give us the best outcome. Take a breath, make a choice about how and if you want to respond, and only then respond.

If you need to take a physical break, you might say: “You’ve caught me a bit off guard. Can you leave that with me for half an hour (or however long you need) because I really want to think about that and then I’ll come back to you.” The key is if you say a timeframe you must stick to it.

3. Depersonalise and empathise. Get curious, not furious. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes and consider what might be going on for them. Ask questions, listen, and seek to understand not to respond. Chances are they’re struggling too. Everyone has been affected by the craziness of this year and no-one’s experience has been the same. While that doesn’t excuse poor behaviour (and you may still need to call it out), it can help explain it.

Remind yourself that some people are struggling more than others and don’t get sucked into one-upmanship about who had the toughest year.

4. Remember, you can’t control other people, you can only control you. All the empathy in the world doesn’t change the fact that some people act like idiots and sometimes those idiots are family. That’s life. You can’t control what other people say or how they behave, you can only control you. Don’t engage in manipulation and passive-aggressive nonsense. Be the bigger and better person.

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 from your perception, which doesn’t necessarily make it fact.

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, COVID, conspiracy theories, or religion. 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. Think about what this message might be 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. Remind each other why you’re there. “You know what? Today’s about fun, family and connection after what has been the year from hell. How about we leave this topic for another time?”

Merry Christmas folks and here’s to a calm, stable and relatively normal 2021.

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Leah Mether helps people get out of their own way with the development of soft skills (which are really hard). She is a speaker, trainer, facilitator, mentor and author of the book Soft is the New Hard: How to Communicate Effectively Under Pressure.