12 tips for handling difficult relationships during the holidays


The holidays are upon us. Some say “it’s the most wonderful time of the year!” Is it?

For many of us, the holiday visits back home to family members is something to be dreaded. While we look forward to the pleasure of celebrating these festive times, there is also the memory of past conflicts and the very real possibility of new confrontations that we find ourselves eager to avoid. We can tell ourselves that this is the year we will not get stressed out or upset about visits with our families. This is what we strive for, yet rarely is it how things turn out.

In is common, according to Dr. Jeffrey Fine, Ph.D., director of the American Foundation for Conscious Parenting, that our families can be “a breeding ground for repressed resentments and hostilities left over from childhood.” [1] We might anticipate that once we have grown up and moved away to create our own lives and families, such feelings would diminish. But, as many of us experience, they do not.

Applying Communication Skills

One potential solution to transforming the holidays from stressful to joyful is the application of identified communication skills that have been researched and shown to facilitate changing difficult relationships. Behavioral Engagement is a 12-step set of communication skills that has been the subject of hospital pilot studies over a 32-year period. [2]

The outcomes of these pilot studies showed that the participants experienced a significant improvement in their relational outlook and attitude after interacting with the communication skills model. Originally developed to enhance relationships between doctors, nurses and patients, the model was also applied to and studied with business and family relationships.

James Prochaska, Ph.D., renowned researcher on behavior change and the author of Change for Good — the Six Stages of Transtheoretical Change, says of Behavioral Engagement: “The process of Behavioral Engagement has the potential to transform relationships that are suffering or struggling to ones that are thriving!”

The Benefits Of Acceptance

Generally, one of the most recommended approaches to staving off holiday conflicts is to “try and accept family members or friends as they are.” [3] Unfortunately, this good intention can be easily sidelined without specific communications skills that can help keep us on track.

The 12-Step Model of Behavioral Engagement endorsed by Prochaska offers specific, easy-to-learn communication skills that have been proven effective in changing conflicted relationships into compatible relationships based on the understanding that we all want to be valued, respected and listened to.

The steps are based on physical, psychological, hormonal and neurological aspects of human relationships and communication. They start with the understanding that, while we cannot change others’ behavior, we can change how we relate to others, which can result in a transformative outcome for all participants.

We can do so by using specific, simple communication skills and following the steps that have been shown to be effective in creating greater receptivity and generating more positive emotions in relationships that have previously been conflicted or stressful.

Steps To Happiness And Health

If you have experienced or are anticipating challenging relationships during the holidays, you may wish to apply these easy steps and see if they can assist you in having happier and even healthier holidays.

  • Step One: Be physically comfortable when communicating. This removes discomfort that can distract from providing your full attention to the person with whom you are speaking. Distractions reduce your focus on the person you speak with and decrease receptivity, sending the message that you may not be listening. That perception can flame the fire of resentment.
  • Step Two: Understand what you want. Our intentions are powerful behavior motivators. The understanding of what we want from an exchange with another person can assist us in communicating more clearly our thoughts and feelings. That invites greater understanding and intimacy. An example is: “I really want to understand what you are upset about.”
  • Step Three: Maintain centered body posture. Uncross arms and legs; present open, receptive body language. To send the message that you are respecting the conversation and giving the other person your full attention, do not play with your watch, glasses or hair or continually look away from the person with whom you are speaking. Committing to being focused is an important element in communication and sends the message that you value your time with the other person. We can all feel when someone values being with or speaking to us.
  • Step Four:  Sustained, soft eye contact has been scientifically proven to stimulate oxytocin, opening emotional centers of the brain and enhancing trust [4] and feelings of love and intimacy.
  • Step Five:  Respectful inquiry. Asking rather than telling or directing and using “I” statements rather than “you” statements create a safe, non-judgmental environment for the other person to communicate openly.
  • Step Six: Responsiveness. Using appropriate response (facial expressions, smiling, head nodding) indicates you are responding to and understanding what the other person is saying without interrupting or interjecting. This acknowledges the value you have for their communication.
  • Step Seven: Pauses between responses, allowing for silence between statements. Instead of immediately speaking as soon as the other person is finished, allowing for appropriate silence when someone has shared a thought or feeling with you is an important part of the experience of respectfully listening to someone. It is also a component of being truly present to the person.
  • Step Eight: Non-judgment. By not allowing your unspoken mental and emotional judgments to invade your attention, you eliminate the unconscious communication that is sent through subtle and gross body language. Unconscious, non-verbal body language is something most of us pick up on immediately. It can make or break your communication and relationships.
  • Step Nine: Leave your ego at the door. Eliminate the push-pull or power struggle of previous relationship interactions by letting go of communication control; allow for equity between you and the other individual.
  • Step Ten: Re-center when you start to lose focus. Mentally repeating simple words you identify as prompts to get you back to the focus of the conversation is a quick and effective way to get yourself re-centered in the exchange. For example, think “back to focus” or “get-centered.”
  • Step Eleven: Collaborative mind-set. Working toward having a win-win outcome eliminates conflict and improves the quality of the relationship both in the short term and for the long term.
  • Step Twelve: Sacredness of relationship. Sacredness means “worthy of respect.” When we are aware of appropriate verbal and behavioral boundaries within our communications, we hold the other person in high esteem and create fulfilling, lasting relationships.

Wise Reflection

When dealing with family holiday conflicts, it can be helpful for us to try these simple, proven communications skills while reflecting on the wisdom of this question: “Would you rather be loved than be right?”

Often, when we elect love over being in control or being right, our relationships shift for the better. You can download a free excerpt of the book on Behavioral Engagement by visiting www.changingbehavior.org.

Georgianna Donadio

By Georgianna Donadio

is one of only six American Florence Nightingale Scholars, an award-winning nurse advocate, integrative healthcare provider, and behavioral health expert. She blogs for the Huffington Post and Dr. Oz's Teen Daily Strength, and is the author of the bestselling, #1 top rated Amazon Kindle book Changing Behavior: Immediately Transform Your Relationships with Easy to Learn, Proven Communication Skills: Winner of the 2012 Indie Book Award and awarded 5 stars from ForeWord Clarion. She's also the Program Director for the National Institute of Whole Health. For 20 years, until recently retiring from television, Georgianna hosted a nationally syndicated television program, Woman to Woman® that explored all topics of interest to women, with a special focus on relationships. Her radio program, “Changing Behavior,” can be heard on All Positive Radio at healthylife.net. Contact her at www.changingbehavior.org where you can download a free book excerpt.