Dealing with Family Hostility at the Holiday Table?

blue and white checkered table cloth with christmas dinner

Dealing with Family Hostility at the Holiday Table?

©2018 Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.

Watch out! Uncle Joe’s coming to the holiday dinner. Oh, no! Sister-in-law Mary is bringing her newest pet. And look out: Your father wants to talk politics, again! Here are four tips for managing them.

How can you handle these potential family troublemakers, who may thrive on stirring things up and disrupting your well-prepared family or friend event?

1. Prepare

Think seriously about who you want to invite or whose event you want to attend. Don’t let guilt be your guide. You may regret it afterward. If you have a high-conflict relative or friend, try to remember the last event they attended. Did they try to steal the show? Did they ruin it? Or were they manageable with some structure involved (see items below)?

It may help to post a small (or large) sign somewhere that says the following (or something like it): “Tis the holiday season. Let’s avoid hot topics that divide us and focus on discussions we can all enjoy. Thanks for making this a pleasant time for all.” This may remind people who otherwise might slip into arguing about diet, religious practices or politics. You can also simply point to the sign in a friendly way when someone brings up a controversial topic. That way you won’t seem to be offending them.

2. Don’t bother to argue

High conflict people don’t change their mind after hearing what you—or anyone—has to say. They enjoy the conflict and use it to justify all kinds of behavior: yelling, storming out, blabbing your carefully kept secrets, refusing to eat your food and otherwise causing a scene. Their whole point is to be the center of attention, not to have a logical discussion. They don’t care about your logic or research. Change their thinking about diet, religion, or politics? Nope!

3. Find a person-sitter

Pick someone to “hang out” with a potentially high-conflict person, so that the person gets plenty of attention and doesn’t feel like they have to start a fight or engage in other nasty behavior just to get attention. Ideally, this would be someone who knows the person and has some experience with managing them in social situations.

4. Change the subject

This goes along with number two above. If someone starts getting into a dangerous topic or an argument, gently and firmly say: “That’s enough, Uncle Joe.” Often, that’s all it takes. Just to be safe, then change the subject: “Can someone pass me the salad dressing.” Too long of a pause after a firm statement leaves room for the person to argue about being shut off.

The goal is to have a good time with reasonable people. Providing a structure to deal with high-conflict people may help them have a good time, too. (They behave better with structure.) Even though it’s the season of good cheer and sharing joy, being nice may not work with everyone. You may need to be assertive for the benefit of your own sanity and everyone else’s peace of mind.

Best wishes for the Holidays!


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BILL EDDY, LCSW, ESQ. is the co-founder and Chief Innovation Officer of the High Conflict Institute in San Diego, California. He pioneered the High Conflict Personality Theory (HCP) and is viewed globally as the leading expert on managing disputes involving people with high-conflict personalities. He has written more than twenty books on the topic, developed methods for managing high-conflict disputes, and has taught professionals in the U.S. and more than ten countries. He is also co-host of the popular podcast, It’s All Your Fault, and writes a popular blog on Psychology Today.

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