By Kristi Pahr
It happens every year. You’re sitting around the table, surrounded by loved ones, young and old, celebrating the holidays. Everyone is full of cheer and goodwill, telling old stories and sharing laughs…then someone brings up politics. Or sexuality. Or race. Or any of the other multitude of divisive conversation topics we battle with today.
Everyone pauses, maybe there are a few uneasy chuckles, a lot of awkward silence, and maybe an argument breaks out. Right there over the decorative table settings and holiday centerpiece, tempers flare and blood pressures rise while everyone tries to navigate a holiday fraught with tension and stress and divergent opinions.
So what do you do? How do you handle a family gathering where the potential for implosion is looming? Here’s one simple approach.
Think First, Then React (If You Want To)
According to author and motivational speaker Dr. Jenelle Kim, an Eastern philosopher and Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioner, start by remembering that “it takes two hands to clap.” Kim says she loves this metaphor “because it actually becomes a visual when in a tense situation to remind yourself that you have the control over whether to partake in making that ‘ clap’ (noise) or not.”
It takes strength to choose not to engage and to remain calm when a situation gets tense; it is much easier to yell. Be realistic about the conflict and ask yourself what you stand to gain by clapping—AKA engaging with an antagonistic person. “If you clearly see that all that will occur is frustration and disarray, don’t choose that road,” she says.
Instead, Kim recommends focusing on your breathing. “If necessary, take a minute to remove yourself and take five slow deep breaths. This helps to bring oxygen to the brain and therefore allows the mind to calm and reset, giving you more strength to act wisely,” she says.
Set an Intention and Take Baby Steps
If you know a gathering is likely to turn adversarial, Kim suggests setting an intention around how you’re going to engage. Since it can feel overwhelming to look ahead to a multi-hour or multi-day gathering and tell yourself to stay calm the whole time, it’s important to do it incrementally.
“Instead of saying ‘This holiday I am going to _____ and not going to_____,’ make the time frame smaller,” she says, by taking it hour by hour instead, for example. “’For the next hour, I am going to ______ and I am not going to_____.’”
There is nothing wrong with wanting to express your thoughts and opinions, especially when you feel your morals or ethics are under attack, but if you don’t want to engage, you are the only one with the power to stop yourself. Setting an intention in baby steps is an effective way to manage conflict and teach yourself new habits.
Kim stresses that in the beginning it may not be easy to wrangle your thoughts and control your reactions. “At first, it may take a lot of patience and self-control to remain calm and not let others’ words or actions get to you, but if you practice letting it go, over time you will see that it is not so difficult. You gain freedom from the situation,” she says. And perhaps the freedom to enjoy a stress-free holiday!