The average family will have at least one argument on Christmas day, according to a 2018 survey of 2000 adults.
The research found that the sources of these arguments were, in the main, relatively trivial. Children being bored, toys not working, the mess, the washing up and deciding what to watch on TV.
Yet for many families, the festive period presents bigger emotional challenges. The pressures of being together for extended periods, often coupled with alcohol, can force deep-seated resentments to the surface.
Even the most innocent, yet ill-judged word can prove incendiary for a family member who is harbouring a grudge.
Imagine you loaned your brother £10,000 two years ago on the proviso it was repaid six months later. There is no sign of the money and he has avoided all discussion of it since. Yet, at the table on the big day he complains about being owed £100 by a friend, expressing how disrespectful it is that the borrower has not paid him back. You would be hard pressed not to rise to this and demand the money back. Inevitably this leads to – at best – a strained conversation, and at worse a full-blown row.
There are infinite scenarios where family members will come into such difficult contact with one another. In some cases, the resentments will relate to a situation far more detrimental than an unpaid debt; abuse, neglect; drug or alcohol dependency. These are all issues that may come to the surface over the festive periods when families are brought together.
The challenge lies in being able to view a situation objectively.
Few of us can see ourselves as others see us. Think of how you hear yourself on an answerphone, or the shock of watching yourself on video. It is often hard to believe that we sound or look a certain way. It is remarkably difficult to have a true perception of our own behaviour.
Even when others tell us how they perceive us, we may choose not to listen. instead filtering out the negative and selectively listening to the positive.
This lack of objectivity makes it impossible to have a difficult conversation. We are unable to engage with anyone who might criticise us. Equally if the person with whom we are trying to engage is equally subjective, then the conversation can go nowhere.
This situation is particularly acute where people have experiences in early life that inform their current responses.
For example, a child with a violent parent may react disproportionately to a boss raising their voice. They might accuse their boss of shouting. The manager, meanwhile, does not accept the criticism and responds dismissively. Neither party can appreciate the other’s point of view and the conversation becomes more and more negative with no resolution to be found.
To avoid such an outcome and turn a difficult conversation into something productive, it is helpful to understand theory of mind (ToM).
Put simply, ToM is understanding how one’s own behaviour impacts other people’s feelings and responses.
Continuing the example above, a boss using ToM would understand his employee’s response to a raised voice. While the boss may not believe they had shouted, they would understand their employee would perceive a raised voice as such. So rather than dismissing the employee’s response, the boss can empathise and engage.
In addition to applying ToM, difficult conversations can prove productive if individuals learn to listen rather than hear, which is a skill we will explore in a later newsletter.
This festival season, there are steps one can take to avoid a difficult conversation turning into a full blown, destructive argument.
The first is timing. One needs to think about the best time to have a difficult conversation. Clearly an already highly charged event such as Christmas Day may not be the best time to tackle an emotive issue.
It may be best to get the conversation out of the way before the festivities commence. If this is not possible, then one may need to accept that the need to leave the difficult conversation until after the event. This may prove challenging, but if one is prepared, one will be better able to walk away from a confrontation and deal with it a more appropriate time.
Individuals can use this intervening period to apply ToM and to think about the other party’s point of view. By considering the situation objectively, it may be easier to envisage a resolution.
By their very nature difficult conversations are uncomfortable, but they should not be avoided altogether. It is possible to find an answer that suits both sides, but it takes patience and timing.
Future newsletters will offer more help in developing the skills to deal effectively with conflict.
I wish you all a wonderful, peaceful festival season and look forward to a prosperous, productive 2019.
Turning difficult conversations into productive ones, requires good timing, objectivity, theory of mind and the ability to hear rather than listen.
Individuals need to think about the best time to hold a difficult conversation. The should be sure they are aware of how others perceive them, and the likely impact their behaviours have. They should be aware of other people’s own issues and be as empathetic as possible.