When you contemplate the holiday season, are you filled with visions of family togetherness? Or are you bracing for stress and tension? It’s often difficult to keep our hopes and anticipations at bay when it comes to the holidays. But research tells us that our anticipations are fateful. Our expectations show up in the tone and direction our conversations take, and our conversations create our reality.
Here are some ideas to help you have conversations worth having this holiday season:
- Begin with yourself. Reflect on the best holiday season or family gathering you’ve ever experienced. Look back on the highpoint memories: times when you felt that spirit of gratitude and connection with others. What factors contributed to these highpoint experiences? What did you value about yourself and others? How might bringing those qualities forward into this season positively influence your holidays?
- Create shared images of the best holiday season. Ask others to imagine an awesome holiday season and then describe it in the present tense. How does it feel? What’s happening? How is everyone engaging and treating one another? What are you doing together and how is each person contributing? After each person shares, create a shared vision and have a conversation about how you will bring these positive images to life.
- Celebrate the moments of shared joy. Celebrate and acknowledge one another’s contributions. Show your gratitude and be specific in telling one another what you appreciate.
- Stay open to the outcome. Hold your expectations lightly. Allow them to flex and evolve. Check in with people if tension or stress begins to unravel the fabric of your vision. If things change, reimagine together. If kids would prefer to hang with their peeps instead of spending the whole time with family, don’t take it personally. Be open to blending and balancing family and friend time.
- Pause, breathe, and get curious. If tension results in anger and negative interactions, pause. Instead of reacting, take a moment. Negative conversations arise when people are overstressed, fearful, or their sense of belonging is threatened. Our body and brain shift to protect us. Under stress, the body and brain release excessive stress hormones (cortisol, norepinephrine, testosterone), which shut down our ability to connect and think creatively or critically. If you react, you deepen the stress response for both of you. Instead, breathe (from the belly) and get curious about what’s behind their stress. Ask questions that convey concern and interest in their perspective or their needs. For example, “What’s going on for you?” “What do you need or want right now?” Ask enough questions to come to a shared understanding and communicate your care. Ten seconds
of eye contact and a genuine hug will trigger the “feel good” hormones that help us reconnect and engage. This opens the door for a conversation that moves everyone towards
a desired outcome.
- Adopt an attitude of curiosity. If taboo topics, like politics or religion, arise make an intentional decision about the conversation you have. Instead of debating, which easily degenerates into a polarizing and destructive conversation, adopt an attitude of curiosity. Take this as an opportunity
to learn more about Uncle Joe or about how your children’s thinking has evolved. Ask questions that make the invisible visible (e.g., assumptions and beliefs). Avoid asking ‘why’ questions. Instead, ask “How did you come to believe that?” “Where do you go for information and facts, and how do you check for accuracy?” “What do you want to have happen and what might be the impact of that on the country?” Search for common ground. You’re not likely to change anyone’s mind, but you will know a lot more about their thinking and feeling and their sources of information. And they will feel heard.
- Make amends. A forgiveness conversation can restore or deepen a relationship. If there is someone in your life that has hurt you or you have hurt, consider initiating a healing conversation. Keep the brain and its chemistry in mind. Hurt and betrayal are threats and send us into fight or flight. Frame the conversation for the outcome you hope for, rather than about what happened. For example, “You are important to me and I want to find a way for us to move forward.” Stay in the question mode, especially if you are seeking forgiveness. Have a conversation that explores what needs to happen for you both to move forward.
The outcome of your holiday season will reflect the conversations you have with family and friends. Make them conversations worth having!
This article first appeared in WNC Woman. It can found at wncwoman.com, December 2018, p. 9.
Cheri Torres is a catalyst for positive change, speaker and author. She works with leaders in organizations and communities enhancing their ability to fuel productive and meaningful engagement. firstname.lastname@example.org