Surviving Family Festivities
20th December 2017 Simon Bloom, Simon Bloom Consultancy
As the holiday season approaches, many people fear the imminent family gettogether. Yet with a little bit of planning, the festive period can still be an enjoyable experience.
Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference. This is the opening verse of the serenity prayer often used by Alcoholics Anonymous, and it may well be useful for anyone dreading the start of the festive season.
For many people meeting up with relatives and getting together with friends is a time for joy but for many others it can be a painful and negative experience.
Many of us can recount a festive meal that ended in disaster. The incendiary mix of too many people, in too confined a space, often with too much alcohol and pent up feeling results in conflict. Yet such an outcome need not be inevitable.
Pick your battles
Ultimately the pleasure or pain that comes from meeting with family comes down to the underlying relationships each individual member has with the others. If these are solid, open and secure then the chances of a party without conflict is high.
But for many families there are numerous issues and tensions which are unresolved which create volatile interactions. Such discord may be even more likely when a family business involved. When attempting to resolve family tension. It is easy to go down one of two paths; neither of which usually is helpful.
First is to keep quiet and swallow any difficulties. But much like trying to keep down another mince pie after finishing the main meal, this results in discomfort.
The second is to tackle the issue head on. However direct action at a family event, often after several glasses of a favourite tipple, can blow problems out of all proportion meaning the issue is not only unresolved, but may be made worse.
There is another way. If one is aware of potential trigger points as the result of an unresolved issue, one can deal with this prior to the event. By approaching the family member with whom there may be the possibility of an altercation, problems can be resolved away from the pressure of other parties getting involved. By keeping the problem separate and limiting emotional anxiety it is more likely to be fixed amicably. This may well involve dealing with unpleasant emotions and having difficult conversations, but the short-term pain is worth the long-term gain.
However, where the difficulty is more intrinsic, in other words it is to do with a family or friend’s personality, it is not advisable to attempt to tackle this either before or at the event. If a person’s character rankles it cannot be changed simply by pointing it out. Indeed, it is likely to exacerbate the problem. Here one turns to the serenity prayer: – let me have the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.
Fail to prepare, prepare to fail
Many family conflicts can be avoided by simply thinking about and preparing for the day itself. For example, it may be that a certain guest harbours a resentment because their vegetarianism is never adequately catered for. Such a flash point is easily avoided by providing a suitable and thoughtful meal. Table plans, too, can avoid awkward meal times. Simply by thinking about who should sit with whom creates a new dynamic which will drive the success of the event.
The same can be said for avoiding boredom. Arranging games and entertainment that involves everyone and prevents low points in the day can be useful. Bringing everyone together and sharing an activity doesn’t just avoid tension it helps bring people together. The same can be said for saying few words before a meal or creating positive talking points.
Laying out a few ground rules is also beneficial. Resentment often arises at the use – or in some cases addiction to – mobile devices. Set a time when these can and cannot be used, and ensure everyone agrees.
The venue can be important too. If the family home is a trigger point for stress, consider arranging to meet on neutral territory. However, be considerate about how far people must travel and the ease with which they can get to a particular location.
Finally, it is worth taking time to be honest about whether a festive family get together can pass without incident. If the issues are too big to resolve before the event, then it is better not to go ahead. Ploughing ahead in an effort to please people may seem like the best short-term course of action but may cause far more pain in the long term.
Ultimately take some time to think about what is needed, who is coming, how the event can run smoothly, and take some pre-emptive steps to avoid conflict on the day. With a bit of planning, care and tact spending time with the family over the festive season can be an extremely rewarding and enjoyable experience.
A Festive Survival Guide
- Be prepared: run through all the potential conflicts and issues well ahead of any events.
- Address any disputes that can be easily and satisfactorily resolved before any gettogether.
- Be willing to accept there will be issues and behaviours that you cannot change.
- Have a set of basic ground rules for the day (or days) that you are together. For example, setting times when it is acceptable to use personal devices.
- Try to ensure everyone feels part of the festivities. For example, cater for people with different dietary requirements, think about who sits where and with whom at dinner.
- Have activities and entertainment that are inclusive. For example, games for children, activities for teenagers, music for older guests.
- Arrange to meet on neutral territory if hosting the event at a certain location might cause stress or upset.
- Avoid people pleasing. Festivities are meant to be fun so if it looks like a gathering will be stressful, postpone it until issues have been resolved.
About the Author - Simon Bloom is the founder of Simon Bloom Consultancy, a psychological informed business consultancy working with family enterprises. Find out more here