Handling High Conflict Situations During the Holidays

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©2018 Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.

Holidays at any time of year can be a time of fun and visiting with family and friends. But it also can be a combustible mix of political opinions, food choices, parenting differences, and generational expectations and pressures. (“So, when are you going to…get a job, get married, have babies, etc.”)

There’s also the chance that there will be a high-conflict person coming. How will you handle this (these?) potential trouble-makers, who may thrive on stirring things up and disrupting your well-prepared family or friend event?  Here’s five simple tips:

1.  Preparation

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 afterwards. 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).

 2.  Post a notice

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.

 3.  Skip the arguments

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. Change their thinking about diet, religion, politics? Fuhgeddaboudit!

 4.  Find a 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.

 5.  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 holidays are a good time to share stories, recollections and useful information, 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.

And remember to have a good time yourself!


Bill Eddy headshotBILL 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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