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Have Yourself a Conflict-Free Christmas

Three steps to improving conversational dynamics in your family.

Key points

  • Christmas family gatherings can be stressful because they trigger memories of past conflict and revive unresolved tensions.
  • When we are triggered by painful memories, our threat brain can go in to overdrive, making us defensive, argumentative, or falsely compliant.
  • We can minimize family conflict by noticing our triggers and habitual threat brain responses and by learning new ways to respond.

For some of us, Christmas is the most stressful time of the year partly because we feel obliged to spend time with our extended family. At best, we may feel they have little in common with us, and at worst, they may make us feel inadequate, ashamed, angry, or irritable.

How our memories can trigger conflict

If you find yourself falling into familiar but apparently unavoidable patterns when you meet up with them (including repeating old arguments or even acting like a 5-year-old), it's likely that their presence stirs deeply rooted memories in you. These "implicit memories" are mostly about how you learned to survive childhood challenges and deal with early anxiety.

Implicit memories—which we all have—contain core beliefs about who and what is a threat to us and what we should do to protect ourselves. These beliefs constitute "survival data" and continue to influence our adult choices, decisions, and reactions.

Implicit memories also work unconsciously, which means we are often unaware of when and how they are motivating what we feel, think, and do. So, you may feel inexplicably angry every time your elderly mother asks for the salt or furious when your brother and his family arrive a few minutes late. Reactions like these, which are out of proportion to the event, are a good clue that core beliefs are being activated. In this case, you may be unconsciously reminded of your mother's hypercritical parenting or the way your brother controlled and bullied you.

Threat brain

When we get triggered in these ways, our threat brain becomes overactive, and we start to see problems everywhere. This hypervigilant state is useful if we are in actual, life-threatening danger (think pythons, lions, etc.) but not so useful when we are dealing with the kind of psychological threat posed by Aunty Pam.

When our threat brain is overactive, we usually resort to one of three learned strategies. These will be familiar in their animal form:

  • Fight: Dogs bark and snarl while we start an argument as a way of defending ourselves and deflecting potential attacks.
  • Flee: Deer accelerate away while we withdraw into silence or moodiness or seek distraction, such as checking our phone or needing to take an urgent call.
  • Freeze: Rabbits are transfixed in the headlights while we become hyper-compliant or people-pleasing, which means "freezing" our own needs to placate the perceived predator.

Threat brain feelings are powerful, and sometimes it feels psychologically safer to displace them (a form of "fleeing") rather than confronting the source of our anger, fear, or anxiety. So, for example, when we are triggered by our parents, we find ourselves becoming irritated and angry with our partner or child instead.

Or we might deny (a form of freezing) our feelings and pretend we are OK—grin and bear it until the mask finally slips. One way we deny our feelings is by comparing our situation to others—there is always someone worse off than us. This explains the huge popularity of the Christmas Specials, in which our favorite TV soap characters are drawn into explosive family showdowns, making our family conflicts feel normal! Whilst this can be a mindful approach to our problems, if it is the only or main way we deal with our threat brain feelings, then it is unlikely to help us feel better in the long run—we will find that the original "threats" keep reappearing.

There are better ways than fight, flee, and freeze to cope with actual and potential conflict and threat brain overload at Christmas—and other times, we feel stressed by family, friends, and colleagues. We can, for example, pay more attention to and thus become more aware of our unconscious motivations. Becoming conscious gives us more control and more choices over our behavior. We could also learn a few simple techniques to help us become more skilled in conversations and in negotiating our family dynamics.

How to have more healthy conversations

The family therapist David Kantor observed hundreds of families in conversation and conflict and developed a theory and method for engaging in more constructive dialogue. Kantor proposed that the hallmark of a healthy conversation is that four types of contribution are in play, and each person in the conversation feels free to take up any one of them, at any moment, in order to keep the conversation productive.

My adapted version of the four-player approach can help us notice how we contribute in conversations and how we can change what we do to interrupt problematic dynamics.

The four essential components of a healthy conversation are:

  • Moving: when a person makes a suggestion, offers an idea, or leads the conversation.
  • Following: when a person is supportive, understanding, and compassionate.
  • Opposing: when a person is constructively and respectfully challenging.
  • Perceiving: when a person, often through a powerful question, invites deeper exploration to bring insight and wisdom.

We move, follow, oppose, and perceive in all our day-to-day conversations, but it is the context that determines how often and how well we make our contributions. This means our behavior is dependent on the people present and the type of situation we are in—although, over time, most of us, if we don't work on it, develop habits of talking that start to appear in many different contexts and may not always be that effective.

When conversations become unproductive and unhealthy, it is usually because we and others have become stuck in a conversational dynamic that lacks all four contributions. The most common problems in unhealthy, "stuck" conversations are:

  • Mixed messages: When what I say is different from what I really feel or think. For example, I might agree with someone (follow) when deep down I disagree (oppose).
  • Silencing: When I want to speak but feel unable to. For example, when I have an idea or suggestion (move) but feel I will be criticized if I speak up.
  • Repetition: When two contributions are repeated over and over again even though the conversation requires something else. A common example is when two people are locked in a move-oppose argument.

To interrupt these problem patterns, you need to identify which of the four parts are missing and then find a way to bring them in—usually, this means you need to change how you are contributing. For example, a perceiving comment can interrupt a stuck move-oppose dynamic. So, when I notice the same old argument brewing, I can stop my repetitive opposing and instead change to perceiving, "I notice that every time Uncle John and I meet up at Christmas, we have the same argument. I wonder why that is?"

Often when we interrupt a dynamic, we are met with stunned or uncomfortable silence. At these moments, stay calm, quiet, and non-defensive and see how the conversation changes shape. Try not to slip back in to move or oppose or into unskilled following by, for example, making a joke or clumsily changing the subject.

Three steps to becoming more skilled at handling family conflicts

When you feel stuck in an unhelpful conversation dynamic, these strategies can help.

1. Reflect on how you deal with conflict in your life.

  • Become conscious of times when your reactions to others or to certain situations seem too strong or out of proportion. You may find it easiest to notice this in others—one person may be quick to anger while another may be endlessly trying to "get it right" for other people. Then try to observe your own reactions in the same way.
  • Talk about your reactions with others and share feedback to discover how others experience you and how you experience others.
  • Notice when your threat brain is triggered and practice slow, rhythmic breathing to regulate it. Don't attempt to contribute in a conversation when you are in threat!

2. Reflect on typical family conversations. Ask yourself:

  • What do I notice about my family and the way we behave and talk together?
  • What are some of the most common four-player patterns that I see happening in my family?
  • What is my role in contributing to these patterns?
  • What do I remember about good family conversations?
  • How can I do what already works well more?

3. When you are with your family:

  • Ask yourself: What does this conversation need from me right now? If people are locked in a move-oppose dynamic, you could follow or perceive. Or if people are in a follow-oppose dynamic (which is typically passive-aggressive), you could try moving or perceiving.
  • Notice your preferred way of contributing in this family and try something different. If you are always following, why not try a move? Or if you are always opposing, why not try to follow?
  • Make it fun and turn the four-player approach into a dinner party game where everyone has to take a move, follow, oppose, and perceive card and try contributing in that style. You can ask people to take a card that represents what they least do!

Remember, while Christmas is a great time to watch family dynamics in action and learn from them, it may not be a good time to try and sort them out because at least one person present is likely to have their threat brain triggered at any time. But if one person in the mix—you—can stay calm when you notice the old family conflicts brewing, and you can ask more questions (perceive/follow) than you make suggestions or challenges (move/oppose), it is a step towards changing the dynamic from one of tension to tolerance.

References

Wickremasinghe, N (2021): Being with Others: Curses, Spells and Scintillations. Triarchy

Kantor, D and Lehr, W (1975): Inside the Family. Jossey-Bass

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