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If you are worried about conflict that may occur during family gatherings such as family reunions, weddings, and holiday dinners, this post may provide some helpful tips on how to reduce or avoid conflict, and how to deal with it when it happens


The fact is, you can’t change others.  You can only change yourself.  However, by changing your own expectations and reactions, you may be able to have a more sane holiday experience!  Here are some concrete suggestions:

1. Lower your expectations

Forget Norman Rockwell and Mayberry RFD. Every family has its issues. There’s a reason you don’t all live in the same house! Don’t expect more from family gatherings than reality can deliver.

2. Assess the stage of the conflict and adjust your responses accordingly

Not all conflict is equal, either in intensity or in values that it impacts. Conflict ranges in intensity to mild curiosity over differences, to heated disagreement, to warfare that requires intervention by law enforcement.  Gauge the stage of conflict and adjust your strategy so that your own reaction matches what is appropriate:

· At mildest levels, keep an open mind. Listen to what the other party is saying. Ask open ended questions to aid listening and communication. Don’t be afraid of lively conversation, so long as no one is getting their feelings hurt!

· At moderate levels, the jokes are not funny and there is pointed disagreement.  Use diversion, separation, and deliberate use of third parties to inject some distraction and relief. Change the subject of conversation.  This is the level of conflict that is most likely able to be addressed by the strategies in this article.

· At severe levels, or if there is overt hostility, pay attention to your personal safety and mental health. Do not engage or retaliate, but do remove yourself from an unhealthy or unsafe situation. Alcohol can increase potential for violence. Do not imbibe excessively, and watch out for those who do. Stay with others as there’s some safety in numbers.

 (For a blog post to help you learn more about stages of conflict, click HERE.)


Most people who have studied negotiation in the last thirty years have studied or heard of the now-classic book, Getting to Yes, by Roger Fisher and William Ury.  This was the foundational book for an entire school of negotiation that repudiated older negotiation strategies of “I win, you lose” (also called zero sum game negotiation), and instead paved the way for negotiation strategies that help people to find “win-win” solutions (also called interest based negotiation).   The five basic principles of interest based negotiation can  help you negotiate your own, more positive, solutions during the holidays:

1. Separate people from the problem

Before responding to any outlandish comment, take a moment to breathe deeply. Hit the “pause” button!  There is a good reason folk wisdom says to “bite your tongue” or “count to ten.”  After a bit, you may feel that the world will not come to an end if you do not respond.

When expressing disagreement, do it in ways that do not attack the person. Do this by using “I” statements. For instance, instead of saying, “That is a stupid idea,” (which attacks the person by calling them stupid), say, “I’m having trouble seeing how that idea is feasible, could you explain how it’s possible for a train engine to fly?” (This does not express your judgment, but invites the other person to explore the basis for their own beliefs further.)

There is also merit in a strategy called “diversion!”  Change the topic of conversation. Assign a task to the problem person.   Or, “divide and conquer!”  Take charge of seating.  Make place cards and literally put enemies at opposite ends of the table.

2. Focus on interests, not positions

Imagine that your cousin John Doe has just made some outrageous statement. Rather than take it at face value that the moon is made from cheese, try to understand the motives, fears and needs that underlie John’s statement.   Only if you are willing to listen and deepen your relationship, try the use of open ended questions that deepen the conversation.  Perhaps by learning more about John, his needs, and his feelings, you might gain insight that could eventually increase communication and understanding.  Then, even if you continue to disagree, you would at least understand him better.  Examples of open ended questions are: “this sounds like it upsets you very much.” Or “tell me more about that.” Then listen for underlying needs and affirm your concern for those needs.

Listening without judging or interrupting is an art that is too often neglected in our society.  It can be especially hard to listen without forming judgments or interrupting when you disagree with someone.  Your mind may seek to jump to conclusions or to point out different examples.  Try to resist!  Instead, listen underneath John’s words for the needs and interests he expresses.  It may surprise you when the real issue or basis for the belief is totally different from the way that concern was expressed at first.

3. Invent options for mutual gain

It is perfectly acceptable to agree to disagree. This enables both of you to enjoy the non-adversarial aspects of your relationship. Talk about the weather and about the Dallas Cowboys. Suppose one person believes in Obamacare and another is adamantly opposed to it. See if you can both agree that you both want people to be healthy. Then, leave it at that.

Another tip is to team up ahead of time with a buddy and mutually agree to “rescue” each other if one of you gets cornered. Even choose a secret signal to call for help.

Make sure people have different spaces in which to congregate or to get away from each other. Provide escape routes both physically and with activities or crafts that provide diversion. If you see someone being overwhelmed by a challenging family member, rescue them by asking them to help with something.

Create activities with which to engage the challenging family member. (“Will you please carve the ham?”) Taking a guest can sometimes cause family keep their company manners, and also provide welcome diversion.

4. Insist on objective criteria

Don’t sweat the small stuff! The objective truth is that you only have to put up with your crazy relative for one day. Remind yourself of that! Take deep breaths and relax. Focus on something else rather than the conflict. (“My, isn’t this wonderful apple pie!”)

At lower levels of conflict or disagreement, it’s okay to ask for a person to clarify their statements by asking open ended questions which get to the root of the person’s belief: “I’ve never heard that. What source did you use to find that fact?” If conversation is friendly, deeper questions can help to clarify misconceptions.

5. Know and exercise your BATNA (best alternative to a negotiated agreement), if needed

In negotiation, it is important for a party to balance what they are offered in negotiation against what they would get through non-negotiated solutions. If the non-negotiated solution would be better than the negotiated, that is the walk-away point.  The walk away point is when you walk away from negotiations and exercise your best alternative (BATNA). In family relationships, the equivalent of the BATNA may be to know when you would feel more peaceful and happier in the long run. Then, draw limits (or choose what limits to draw) and place conditions on the visit.  If the visit becomes unpleasant, find an excuse to leave.  You will know that you tried, but you will also have been true to your values.

Holidays are also a time that can lead to domestic violence. Statistically, one woman in four will be a victim of domestic violence at some time in her life. One in three female homicide victims is killed at the hands of her partner. Threats of violence, especially accompanied by a weapon, must be taken very seriously. Contrary to popular notion, holidays are a time of increased violence. If this is a situation that might apply to you, develop a personal safety plan which would cover how you would escape, where to, what you would take, and you could call for help.


Part of being a healer and open to healing is to be willing to do so.  Sometimes, this involves letting go of preconceived notions of what is “right,” and also refusing to be governed blindly by expectations imposed either by ourselves or by others.  Here are a few ideas:

· Where there is a gap to be bridged, choose to make the first move toward forgiveness or understanding.

· When possible, give the benefit of the doubt.

· Be willing to acknowledge mistakes from the past and ask forgiveness (when appropriate).

· If the person retaliates, do not respond in kind.

Sometimes healing includes giving one’s self permission to do things differently.   Hopefully, some suggestions in this post will help you develop strategies to cope with family conflict at the holiday gathering.  But, if none of these seem realistic, then consider doing what needs to be done to care of yourself.  It’s possible that the most healing action you could take is to distance yourself from the source of the anxiety.  If none of the strategies listed here will keep you safe or make you happy, consider giving yourself  permission to take care of yourself, by staying away or leaving early.  Life is what you make of it.  If relationships with biological relatives are too stressful, nurture friendships and create your own family.   Create and affirm new traditions with loved ones that you experience as healing, wholesome, and which make you and your loved ones feel happy, appreciated, and loved for who you genuinely are.

© Alexandria Skinner 2013  Alexandria is a mediator, attorney, and conflict coach in private practice in Columbia, South Carolina.  If you would be interested in scheduling her to speak at a training event to help your church, organization, or family develop better skills in conflict resolution, please fill out the contact form below:


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