Handling Holiday Drama: Managing difficult peopleDecember 14 , 2011

We’ve all got people that push our buttons.  Whether it’s about religion, politics or the way we ”should” live our life (or drive our car or wear our hair or raise our children), they seem to know exactly the thing to say to set us on a path of reactive anger or defensiveness.  Holiday gatherings can be especially trying, since quite often these button-pushers are family members who we don’t see often, or bosses/co-workers from whom we usually have the distance of work topics.

With a little planning and forethought, though, you can minimize the negativity caused by these button-pushers.  Here are some tips for managing that difficult person.

Ask lots of questions.  Do a little homework ahead of time and come prepared with a host of questions ready about something important in this person’s life – a recent trip, their kids’ activities, their interests.  Keep the conversation away from sensitive topics by leading with your inquiries.  People LOVE to talk about themselves; make it easy for them.

Focus conversation on the good things.  Lead the conversation to more neutral or positive topics – the weather, the food, decorations at the party or appreciation for the host.  Set a positive tone to start.

Invite a new friend.  Difficult people are less likely to go into all-out conflict mode if there is someone new around.  This strategy works particularly well with family gatherings where the dynamics of a stranger/guest keep everyone on good behavior.  BONUS; You may bring some holiday cheer to a friend who will be charmed (or hoodwinked) by your lovely family.

True Happiness Tactics:  If you can manage them, these tactics go beyond just minimizing negativity and create happiness for you.

Let go of changing or convincing your button-pusher.  Look at your own role in stoking the negativity with this person.  Do you subconsciously bait them into the conflict by preempting their arguments?  Do you start out defensively?  As easy as it is to blame them, we often have a role in amping up the conflict and taking the conversation into challenging territory.  Accepting them as they are can be powerful.   Check into your assumptions.

Find the good things about this person.  Sure, there are things you dislike about this person, but what are their positive qualities?  What do others love about them?  Are they a great parent or partner?  Do they do good community work?  Have they helped others that you love?  Hold these good qualities in your mind when you engage with them.

Find the humor.  If no matter what you do, Uncle Bob replays the same conversation EVERY Christmas –  “So when are you going to get a real job?” or “Wow, the Republicans/Democrats are sure screwing up the country.”   Try to find humor in their bizarre infatuation with the topic? Think of it as a charming quirk and part of the fun.

If all else fails…

Minimize your exposure.  Arrive a little late.  Leave a little early.  Avoid getting into a direct conversation with them or just walk away if the conversation gets heated.

Skip the event completely.  If there is going to be a similar level of drama whether you go or not, save those precious holiday hours.  Use the time for another favorite holiday activity instead.  Schedule a way to connect with those you will miss at another time where the challenging person isn’t present.  Life (and the holiday period) is too short for extraneous drama.

The holidays can be a time of wonderful connection.  Use these tips to help minimize the negativity of challenging people so you can savor the time with those you love!

Eric Karpinski
The Happiness Coach
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