Turn Conflict to Connection at Christmas 1

What does Christmas mean to you?

Truly, madly, deeply, at the core of your soul what is the magic of this specific holiday period for you? Is there a religious meaning or tradition or customs that feels central for you? Is it about gift giving – I know for many it is the magic of a child opening their presents under the tree on Christmas morning. Or is it simply an opportunity to rest, recuperate and reflect?

In my family it is the food. We celebrate with food, we commiserate with food, we gather around food. For me creating something nourishing and indulgent for someone I care about is akin to loving them – I’m inspired by the likes of Yotam Ottolenghi, Nigel Slater and Samin Nosrat who get so much joy out of food. But it’s also the gathering: the time shared, the laughter (crude humour), and the togetherness of it all.

Depending on where you’re from, how you were raised, and who you spend your time with, what is meaningful to you about Christmas, or any significant holiday, can vary dramatically. What is meaningful isn’t always conscious but nonetheless drives your priorities and motivations. Without clear sight on the meaning, obligation, tradition, and external validation easily clouds, distracts, and disguises what is important about the holiday leaving you feeling underwhelmed, disappointed, and deflated after Christmas. This can also be the source of stress and conflict; when you’re driven to extremes to please others or chasing excessive standards of perfection out of obligation, tradition, or external validation, you’re disconnected from what is meaningful to you about Christmas.

Stones, pebbles, and sand

I’m sure you’ve come across this metaphor before; a professor puts an empty jar in front of a classroom. He fills it with stones explaining that these are the things in your life that have real meaning: your health, your partner, your children, your siblings, and friends. Then he pours in the pebbles explaining that these are things of less importance: your job, your car, your home, the gifts, the table settings, and decorations. He then adds the sand explaining they’re of even less importance: the opinions of others, the obligations, the ‘shoulds,’ the shop your food came from or the places you visited on holiday. The lesson the professor is teaching is that if you don’t put the stones in first, they won’t fit later.

Take a few seconds to think about what this idea means to you in context to Christmas: what are the stones, pebbles, and sand for you? Then consider what you’re filling your jar with this Christmas. What happens during emotionally loaded holidays like Christmas is that obligation, tradition and even comparison can cloud our ability to recognise our stones – what is meaningful to us in that moment – and we end up filling our jar with the pebbles and sand instead of the stones. When we try to fit the stones in later, we can’t, so we’re left disconnected from what is meaningful to us, the stones. We feel stressed, irritable, short tempered and prone to conflict.

Your presence is the present.

I use a lot of mindfulness techniques in my work: breathwork, observation and reflection, meditation, most of which rely on your ability to anchor your time, effort, energy, and attention to the present moment.

The first strategy I want to encourage you to try this Christmas is to simply be present. Being present means you’re not influenced by the past and you’re not attached to the outcomes of the future, you’re actively, intentionally, and consciously here in the reality of this moment. When your mind wanders off into the past and criticises you for the burnt carrots last year or disappears into the future, worrying about some imagined, potential, future outcome, you’re able to come back to now, this drink, this meal, this conversation, and this moment.

If you’re finding it tough, take a few seconds to observe your senses: count five things you can see, four things you can hear, three things you can touch, two that you can smell and one that you can taste.

There are a couple of things you can do to enhance your ability to be present:

LIMIT DISTRACTIONS: The pings, tings and dings of your phone, doom scrolling to see what everyone else is doing for Christmas and the comparison of social media, all these things take you away from the present moment. Perhaps you could designate specific times to check your phone or set clear boundaries like no phones at the dinner table.

PRACTICE GRATITUDE: You can express gratitude outwardly, genuinely thanking those around you for their time or their company or you could simply internally acknowledge the people, experiences, and things that bring you joy and fulfilment. Research shows that gratitude can literally change the structure of your brain – and it taps into your brain’s reward system, increasing those feel-good hormones that give you that warm fuzzy feeling.

TAKE TIME TO REFLECT: While it clearly isn’t helpful to judge, criticise or dwell on the past it is helpful to take a few seconds at the end of the day to intentionally reflect. Specifically, pay attention to the things that went well or that you particularly enjoyed. Of course, there will have been challenges, instead of focusing on what went wrong, try to focus on what you learnt from the challenges and what you might do differently in the future. This intentional refocus fuels those feel-good hormones but it also helps you embed the memories of precious moments with your loved ones.

While I loathe the phrase, but in terms of turning conflict into connection – your presence is literally and figuratively the present – the greatest gift you can give another is to be present. Not “I’m here, aren’t I?” but rather “I am here.” When you are consciously, actively, and intentionally present in the moment you are open to connection, more likely to imbue positive memories and more able to respond to the demands of others with thought and care.

Have the courage to communicate.

In my workshops around conflict management, I talk a lot about COURAGEOUS CONVERSATIONS as a method of conflict prevention. At its heart, a courageous conversation is any conversation that you initiate in order to discuss, resolve, or explore an uncomfortable subject that you might usually avoid. A conversation that is likely to make you and anyone participating very uncomfortable. It’s the type of conversation that, if avoided, is probably going to create distress, emotional turmoil, and resentment and in the long term erode or even destroy the connection you have with another person.

Let’s imagine I have a mother-in-law and she doesn’t like that I am about to use my own recipe to make a traditional dish – so what, my house, my rules? Right? Instead of telling me directly, she tells her son, my husband. Now he’s stressed, caught between his wife and mother who are in a silent argument. A courageous conversation is one where I approach my mother-in-law directly and with kind curiosity initiate a conversation about what is important to her about this dish being made her way. Let’s be clear, my mother-in-law is only imaginary, and I don’t doubt this is an uncomfortable prospect but rather than perpetuating a silent conflict that undermines Christmas and creates ripples of stress, a courageous conversation has the potential to create connection with the other person.

There are some rules.

LISTEN TO UNDERSTAND: Especially when emotions are running high, we tend to listen to reply, a quick quip to silence the other person. Instead try to listen to understand, hear what they’re saying, understand with empathy and suspend your judgment. Pause for a beat before you speak and even ask to confirm your understanding. When we listen in this way, we create an environment where others feel seen and heard, one that builds trust and connection.

COMMUNICATE OPENLY: There is no value in initiating a courageous conversation and being coy or obtuse, you may as well stay in the unpleasant, erosive, silent conflict. Tackling things head on with honesty, humility, and respect will diffuse any potential conflict and open you both up to connection. Imagine how different my relationship with my imaginary mother-in-law will be if she feels heard and I understand what is going on for her and we’re no longer in silent, stressful conflict. It won’t solve everything, but clear, direct, compassionate communication will always deepen connection.

EXPRESS YOUR EMOTIONS: If we don’t express our emotions, they’re guaranteed to come out in uglier ways somewhere down the line. It might mean you take a moment (90 seconds) in the bathroom to scream, cry or tightly squeeze the hand towel, clenching your teeth and fists, but try to calmly, respectfully speak about how you feel. “I am disappointed that you don’t want to try my recipe, but I understand that the traditional method is meaningful to you.” Suddenly the possibilities of the direction of conversation are endless.

THE FOUR HORSEMEN: CRITICISM | CONTEMPT | DEFENSIVENESS | STONEWALLING It would be remise of me to exclude that in moments of heightened emotion, frustration, blame and conflict there are four reactions that are deeply unhelpful. Defined as The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse by The Gottman Institute they are the predictors of divorce and in context to Christmas the aggravators of conflict.

Criticism presents as a generalised, negative statement about a person’s character or behaviour, it might sound like: “you always” or “you never.” If you are feeling critical, try to express your feelings using an “I” statement, for instance “I felt disappointed that you didn’t help me clean up.” Rather than “You never clean up.” If another person is critical of you, instead of reacting to their “You always” or “you never” statements, you could ask them what it is they’re feeling when they make that statement.

Contempt is usually disrespectful behaviour, name-calling, mockery, sarcasm, it usually suggests superiority or disdain toward the other person. If you feel like name calling or looking down on another, try to show respect, appreciation, kindness, or empathy; it could sound like “I understand that your mother-in-law wants things done her way.” If someone else is treating you this way, try to avoid engaging in the disrespectful behaviour, try to keep calm and respectful and if it gets out of hand you can draw a boundary and explain that you won’t continue the conversation if the other person cannot be polite and respectful.

Defensiveness is when you deny responsibility, make excuses, side tracking or counterattacking: “well you didn’t help me either,” rather than tackling the issue at hand. If you begin to feel defensive, try to stay engaged and listen, then try to acknowledge your role in the situation and explore ways you could do better together. If someone else is defensive with you, you can explain that their response isn’t helpful and try to bring them back to the topic at hand.

Stonewalling is when you withdraw from a conversation and shutdown, usually because you’re emotionally flooded or overwhelmed. It could look like silent treatment or sulking. If you feel like stonewalling, I want you to say how you’re feeling and ask for space but be specific about when you’ll come back to the table, the room, or the conversation. Give yourself time to recollect your thoughts and de-escalate your emotions. If someone stonewalls you, you could say something like “I can see we’re both feeling a lot here, let’s take a break and come back to this” – try to set a time and place to come back to the conversation.

Not every conflict will include these unhelpful behaviour patterns, and if you can remain calm, compassionate, and respectful you can usually diffuse a conflict, but it is important to recognise that you too are capable of these unhelpful reactions.

Reality check your magical thinking.

Your brain is an incredible survival machine and one of its most effective survival strategies is keeping things predictable. In fact, it will keep you in familiar discomfort in preference to trying something new (eg. a courageous conversation) in order to keep you safe by predicting the new thing as a guaranteed failure.

My imaginary mother-in-law’s desire to have a traditional dish cooked in a predictable way is a great example of how much our brains like predictability. She’s probably feeling stressed because she can’t control the predictability of something that is meaningful to her at Christmas: honouring her traditions. 

We all chase this type of predictability and often in advance of special occasions like Christmas, we build up a picture of what the perfect Christmas should look like, the perfect way our children, partners, parents, and friends should behave at Christmas, the perfect activities, meals, and games that make the perfect Christmas. In our minds we set our expectations – expectations that are rarely in touch with reality. Then when reality happens and it doesn’t match up to our imagined version, we get disappointed, stressed, and overwhelmed – it isn’t personal, it is because reality doesn’t match the expectations we’ve created internally.

You cannot control the expectations that others have created in their minds, but you can set expectations for what is realistic, enjoyable, and meaningful to you especially if you’re hosting.

THINK CLEARLY: Try not to get stuck in your own world of magical thinking, try to think through the reality of your vision and the reality of what you can control – you cannot control the thoughts, feelings, or behaviours of others. If you want your partner to help with cleaning up, what specifically do you want them to do? If you want your entire house decorated in gold, what specifically might that include?

COMMUNICATE OPENLY: With compassion and respect, leaving no space for ambiguity or confusion, communicate your vision and your expectations. Be impeccable and unimpeachable: Husband: “please could you to clear the dishes from the table at the end of the meal and put them in the dishwasher and turn the dishwasher on…” Family: “lunch will be served at 2pm, please arrive by 1.15pm so that we can have a drink beforehand and sit down together.” I know it feels frustrating to have to ask in detail but the reality is nobody has a crystal ball to see into your mind and translate your vision into reality.

SET LIMITS: Unapologetically set the limits of what is realistic, enjoyable, and meaningful to you. Perhaps it is an instruction about toys being away by a certain time or no phones at the table or maybe it is a courageous conversation about money in children’s bank accounts over gifts.

When you set clear, well thought out expectations, communicate them clearly and set the limits of what is meaningful, enjoyable, and realistic for you, you’re creating predictability for your own brain as much as you are for everyone else. This predictability will make you and your family feel psychologically safe encouraging those warm fuzzy feeling hormones that support trust and connection, enhance memories and diffuse conflict.

My final words:

Conflict, if handled with care, doesn’t have to ruin Christmas. Instead, it can become an opportunity to build and deepen the connection you have with those around you. I encourage you to explore and experiment with these ideas, find out what works for you and your loved ones.

Here are the 3 strategies:

  • BE PRESENT it will help the memories stick and deepen your connection with those you love
  • Try to initiate COURAGEOUS CONVERSATIONS as a method of conflict prevention; silent arguments encourage THE FOUR HORSEMEN
  • Impeccably and unimpeachably SET EXPECTATIONS, it will go a long way to creating comforting predictability.

And with that I want to wish you a very Merry Christmas full of love, laughter and too much food.

If you found this article helpful, drop me an email, I would love to know what difference it made for you. If you’re curious about working with a coach, book some time in my diary, I love talking about coaching!