Holidays, family meals, and reunions can include “spirited” conversations, and “enthusiastic” exchanges of opinions over the dinner table. The combination of reuniting with family members that we don't see very often and with whom we may have some residual unfinished business fueled by a measure of alcohol can create a perfect storm. In order to prevent a case of severe indigestion or worse, here are a few guidelines to consider before sitting down to the dinner table, or better still before you make the trip to the holiday gathering.
1. Set an intention. An intention is a desire plus a commitment to do whatever is our power to have that desire fulfilled. Having an idea, vision or sense of what we want to have happen over the holiday can be our guiding light. A couple of examples of holiday gathering intentions are: "I will participate in all of my interactions with others with an intention to bring an attitude of goodwill, respect, understanding and non-judgment.” "I intend to resist the temptation to argue with others or attempt to coerce them into seeing things the way think they should (that is, MY way)".
2. Be prepared. Old patterns from childhood can get activated when we are in the presence of the people we used to live with and related to on a daily basis. Many of us are many not as recovered and healed from past wounds as we would like to think we are. (If you got triggered by what I just said, you might be one of those people.) If we come prepared, we are less likely to be caught off guard and will be better able to stay calm, cool and collected even in the face of provocative thoughts and feelings expressed by others.
3. Reframe: Rather than seeing different perspectives as breakdowns or a problems, we can redefine what is occurring as an opportunity to create more understanding between ourselves and others and to create connections that go beyond a difference in opinions or points of view. Instead of getting defensive or argumentative, try to see the situation as a chance to practice self-restraint, respect for differences and committed listening.
4. Practice committed listening: Keep in mind that a refusal to argue with someone’s perspective is not an endorsement of the other person’s point of view. Silently listening does not necessarily constitute agreement with them. Give the person with whom you are communicating your full attention while they are speaking and wait until they have had their say before offering your perspective (if you feel the need to). Clarify that you understand their views, and if they are interested in hearing yours, offer them. Try to listen from the intention of trying to understand how they see things rather than an intention to have your views prevail.
5. Presence: Commit to being as fully present during the event as you can. Try to minimize or avoid external distractions such as TV’s, loud music, cell phones, or other electronic devices. Make an effort to minimize your intake of alcohol, since the greater your intake, the harder it is to be present and mindful.
6. Avoid arguments: It’s easy to get into arguments, but it can also be easy to avoid them if you want to. Just let go of the need to be right. Easier said than done, you say? Only if you think that being right makes you a winner and not being right makes you a loser. If someone offers an opinion that you don’t agree with see if you can resist the impulse to tell them why they are wrong and just acknowledge them for sharing their point of view. Who knows? You may even learn something from listening to them with curiosity about how they came to see things the way they do. You might also learn that it’s not the end of the world if someone sees things differently than you do.
7. Resist the temptation to try to impress others with your achievements or wisdom. Try to remember that people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.
8. If you prefer meaningful conversations to small talk, set an example by taking the dialogue a deeper level by bringing a higher level of vulnerability, self-disclosure, and honesty by speaking from an intention to reveal rather conceal, to connect, rather than protect and to express rather than repress. It may feel risky to do this, but the outcome can often be surprisingly positive.
Family gatherings provide can be fertile ground to strengthen qualities such as patience, self-discipline, self-restraint, tolerance, acceptance, compassion, and forgiveness. We can come away from the holiday gathering feeling pleased that we conducted ourselves as respectful, responsible adults in bringing generosity of spirit to those with whom we have interacted. In so doing it’s likely that we will not only feel more connected to those in attendance, but more appreciative of them as well. Our families can be a mixed bag, but then when we stop to think about it, we may see that we are too.
By the way, in case you're wondering, these suggestions apply to ALL of your relationships, especially your closest ones. If you’re in a committed partnership, be especially mindful to not neglect your partner during family events. It’s easy to take him or her for granted when there are others who desire our attention with whom we may have little contact in much of the rest of the year.
Having a conversation with your partner prior to your visit can be very helpful in anticipating areas of sensitivity that one or both of you may have about feeling neglected, unappreciated, or jealous. These feelings may come up but they need not be disruptive to your experience if the two of you can find the time and space to remind each other through your words and actions of your love and appreciation, even when you are in conversations with others. A little reassurance can go a long way!