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Keep Calm and Carry On: 7 Strategies for Dealing with a Difficult Family Member During the Holidays

Keep Calm and Carry On: 7 Strategies for Dealing with a Difficult Family Member During the Holidays

As bright and merry as the holidays might be, it’s inevitable that tension within families will arise. How could they not? Put together a group of people who have been more or less estranged for several months (if not a year), douse them with sugar, booze, and high expectations, and you’re bound to confront a few challenges.

There’s our Uncle Joe, who unknowingly spits when he talks, over-imbibes, and used his experience in the war as a launching pad for uncomfortable political debates. There’s our Aunt Gini, who, make no mistake about it, will find a way to bring up someone’s latest scandal just as the turkey is being served. There’s the Mother Hen, who’s a Nazi in the kitchen; the sullen nephew; the angry cousin; the philandering new husband. The list goes on, and the migraine intensifies, until the mere thought of enduring a two-hour family dinner has you running toward the hills.

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However you define “difficult” in your family, the good news is that you can keep calm and carry on. Here’s how.

1. Set boundaries.

Perhaps there was a time in your past when you were vulnerable (and, let’s admit it, a bit tipsy on your grandmother’s mulled wine) and dished about your personal life, down to the minutest, most sordid detail. Put that in the past, and face this holiday season with a commitment to remain mum, lest your stories or confessions be used as ammo in the future. And, yes: mum. When someone asks an intimate question, smile and say, “Have you tried this pecan pie?” Or confuse them with an equally intimate question, your eyebrows raised. Or distract them with a compliment. However you choose to handle the awkward moment, know that boundaries exist for a reason and no one should persuade you to cross them. It’s one of the great pleasures of adulthood.

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2. Realize you’re not a magician (or a therapist, stylist, admissions counselor, or bartender).

By this, I mean, you’re not responsible for anyone else’s happiness, nor are you there to listen to your cousin’s litany of complaints about the dating scene in Orlando. This is a crucial lesson to learn, and one that takes years to fully sink in. But think about it: if you walk into a holiday party, convinced your grandfather’s satisfaction with the event is your responsibility and yours alone, you’re destined for disappointment. Likewise, if you believe that an hour’s chat over champagne will heighten your sister’s self-esteem and lead to her making smarter, safer choices, you’re headed for a letdown. Be polite, help with the dishes, praise the hosts, offer your warmth and love, but remember that while you might be able to provoke a smile, you can’t guarantee anyone else’s contentment except your own.

3. Avoid drama.

Holidays are ripe for drama, because here’s a newsflash: spiked eggnog, rich dishes, claustrophobic living rooms, overstimulated children, and adults with their noses out of joint does not a pretty party make. Inescapably, someone will find something to get upset about—and will want you to jump on their train of self-pity and rage. Your job is to stay off it at any cost. Which brings me to my next point—

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4. Have an exit strategy.

This could be temporary (“Excuse me, I have to use the ladies’ room”) or more lasting (informing the hosts ahead of time that you’ll be leaving at 9:30 because of a prior commitment). Avoid carpooling if your riding partners have a reputation for overstaying their welcome, keep your cellphone handy, and never allow yourself to be bullied into staying “just for one more.” (We all know there’s never been a more deceptive plea.) Having a way out will give you comfort throughout the event, allowing you to acknowledge and appreciate that your time there is finite.

5. Wear a shield.

And no, I don’t mean the Batman shield you bought your son at Walgreens for Halloween—I mean an invisible shield that protects you from the insults and injuries of others. Whether your mother-in-law has a habit of saying, “My, you look healthy!” (code for “you’ve put on weight”) or your uncle criticizes your food (“Cranberry relish? Again?”), envisioning an impenetrable bulwark around you will keep you from falling prey to the outward manifestations of someone else’s self-hate. If someone says something scathing—or even downright hurtful—allow it to bounce right off you, preferably right back into their face.

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6. Open your heart, but claim it as your own.

It’s indisputable: the way we feel about someone is directly reflected in the way they treat us in return. If you have doubts about your niece’s decision to switch careers in a formidable economy or have frankly never been fond of your son’s girlfriend’s choice of attire, now is not the time to let either pettiness or harsh opinions surface. If we arrive ill-disposed towards a particular person, there’s hardly a doubt that said individual will respond in kind (or, rather, not so kindly). Smile with honestly, listen with impunity, treat everyone fairly, and your desire to get along with others will transpire.

7. Give thanks.

No matter the conflict and tension that might emerge—or even catch fire—realize that every holiday we have to spend with our relatives is a gift. Abandoning unrealistic expectations of pure harmony will enable you to appreciate the holidays for what they are: an occasion to feel the magnitude of how very blessed we are.

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Published on May 18, 2021

How To Improve Listening Skills For Effective Workplace Communication

How To Improve Listening Skills For Effective Workplace Communication

We have two ears and one mouth for a reason—effective communication is dependent on using them in proportion, and this involves having good listening skills.

The workplace of the 21st century may not look the same as it did before COVID-19 spread throughout the world like wildfire, but that doesn’t mean you can relax your standards at work. If anything, Zoom meetings, conference calls, and the continuous time spent behind a screen have created a higher level of expectations for meeting etiquette and communication. And this goes further than simply muting your microphone during a meeting.

Effective workplace communication has been a topic of discussion for decades, yet, it is rarely addressed or implemented due to a lack of awareness and personal ownership by all parties.

Effective communication isn’t just about speaking clearly or finding the appropriate choice of words. It starts with intentional listening and being present. Here’s how to improve your listening skills for effective workplace communication.

Listen to Understand, Not to Speak

There are stark differences between listening and hearing. Listening involves intention, focused effort, and concentration, whereas hearing simply involves low-level awareness that someone else is speaking. Listening is a voluntary activity that allows one to be present and in the moment while hearing is passive and effortless.[1]

Which one would you prefer your colleagues to implement during your company-wide presentation? It’s a no-brainer.

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Listening can be one of the most powerful tools in your communication arsenal because one must listen to understand the message being told to them. As a result of this deeper understanding, communication can be streamlined because there is a higher level of comprehension that will facilitate practical follow-up questions, conversations, and problem-solving. And just because you heard something doesn’t mean you actually understood it.

We take this for granted daily, but that doesn’t mean we can use that as an excuse.

Your brain is constantly scanning your environment for threats, opportunities, and situations to advance your ability to promote your survival. And yet, while we are long past the days of worrying about being eaten by wildlife, the neurocircuitry responsible for these mechanisms is still hard-wired into our psychology and neural processing.

A classic example of this is the formation of memories. Case in point: where were you on June 3rd, 2014? For most of you reading this article, your mind will go completely blank, which isn’t necessarily bad.

The brain is far too efficient to retain every detail about every event that happens in your life, mainly because many events that occur aren’t always that important. The brain doesn’t—and shouldn’t—care what you ate for lunch three weeks ago or what color shirt you wore golfing last month. But for those of you who remember where you were on June 3rd, 2014, this date probably holds some sort of significance to you. Maybe it was a birthday or an anniversary. Perhaps it was the day your child was born. It could have even been a day where you lost someone special in your life.

Regardless of the circumstance, the brain is highly stimulated through emotion and engagement, which is why memories are usually stored in these situations. When the brain’s emotional centers become activated, the brain is far more likely to remember an event.[2] And this is also true when intention and focus are applied to listening to a conversation.

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Utilizing these hard-wired primitive pathways of survival to optimize your communication in the workplace is a no-brainer—literally and figuratively.

Intentional focus and concentrated efforts will pay off in the long run because you will retain more information and have an easier time recalling it down the road, making you look like a superstar in front of your colleagues and co-workers. Time to kiss those note-taking days away!

Effective Communication Isn’t Always Through Words

While we typically associate communication with words and verbal affirmations, communication can come in all shapes and forms. In the Zoom meeting era we live in, it has become far more challenging to utilize and understand these other forms of language. And this is because they are typically easier to see when we are sitting face to face with the person we speak to.[3]

Body language can play a significant role in how our words and communication are interpreted, especially when there is a disconnection involved.[4] When someone tells you one thing, yet their body language screams something completely different, it’s challenging to let that go. Our brain immediately starts to search for more information and inevitably prompts us to follow up with questions that will provide greater clarity to the situation at hand. And in all reality, not saying something might be just as important as actually saying something.

These commonly overlooked non-verbal communication choices can provide a plethora of information about the intentions, emotions, and motivations. We do this unconsciously, and it happens with every confrontation, conversation, and interaction we engage in. The magic lies in the utilization and active interpretation of these signals to improve your listening skills and your communication skills.

Our brains were designed for interpreting our world, which is why we are so good at recognizing subtle nuances and underlying disconnect within our casual encounters. So, when we begin to notice conflicting messages between verbal and non-verbal communication, our brain takes us down a path of troubleshooting.

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Which messages are consistent with this theme over time? Which statements aren’t aligning with what they’re really trying to tell me? How should I interpret their words and body language?

Suppose we want to break things down even further. In that case, one must understand that body language is usually a subconscious event, meaning that we rarely think about our body language. This happens because our brain’s primary focus is to string together words and phrases for verbal communication, which usually requires a higher level of processing. This doesn’t mean that body language will always tell the truth, but it does provide clues to help us weigh information, which can be pretty beneficial in the long run.

Actively interpreting body language can provide you with an edge in your communication skills. It can also be used as a tool to connect with the individual you are speaking to. This process is deeply ingrained into our human fabric and utilizes similar methods babies use while learning new skills from their parents’ traits during the early years of development.

Mirroring a person’s posture or stance can create a subtle bond, facilitating a sense of feeling like one another. This process is triggered via the activation of specific brain regions through the stimulation of specialized neurons called mirror neurons.[5] These particular neurons become activated while watching an individual engage in an activity or task, facilitating learning, queuing, and understanding. They also allow the person watching an action to become more efficient at physically executing the action, creating changes in the brain, and altering the overall structure of the brain to enhance output for that chosen activity.

Listening with intention can make you understand your colleague, and when paired together with mirroring body language, you can make your colleague feel like you two are alike. This simple trick can facilitate a greater bond of understanding and communication within all aspects of the conversation.

Eliminate All Distractions, Once and for All

As Jim Rohn says, “What is easy to do is also easy not to do.” And this is an underlying principle that will carry through in all aspects of communication. Distractions are a surefire way to ensure a lack of understanding or interpretation of a conversation, which in turn, will create inefficiencies and a poor foundation for communication.

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This should come as no surprise, especially in this day in age where people are constantly distracted by social media, text messaging, and endlessly checking their emails. We’re stuck in a cultural norm that has hijacked our love for the addictive dopamine rush and altered our ability to truly focus our efforts on the task at hand. And these distractions aren’t just distractions for the time they’re being used. They use up coveted brainpower and central processes that secondarily delay our ability to get back on track.

Gloria Mark, a researcher at UC Irvine, discovered that it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds for our brains to reach their peak state of focus after an interruption.[6] Yes, you read that correctly—distractions are costly, error-prone, and yield little to no benefit outside of a bump to the ego when receiving a new like on your social media profile.

Meetings should implement a no-phone policy, video conference calls should be set on their own browser with no other tabs open, and all updates, notifications, and email prompt should be immediately turned off, if possible, to eliminate all distractions during a meeting.

These are just a few examples of how we can optimize our environment to facilitate the highest levels of communication within the workplace.

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

Effective communication in the workplace doesn’t have to be challenging, but it does have to be intentional. Knowledge can only take us so far, but once again, knowing something is very different than putting it into action.

Just like riding a bike, the more often you do it, the easier it becomes. Master communicators are phenomenal listeners, which allows them to be effective communicators in the workplace and in life. If you genuinely want to own your communication, you must implement this information today and learn how to improve your listening skills.

Choose your words carefully, listen intently, and most of all, be present in the moment—because that’s what master communicators do, and you can do it, too!

More Tips Improving Listening Skills

Featured photo credit: Mailchimp via unsplash.com

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