How to stop annoying relatives from ruining holiday meals

How to stop annoying relatives from ruining holiday meals

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Communication consultant Geoffrey Tumlin explains why ducking fights is better than getting into arguments with “grinchy” relatives

Does this holiday scenario sound familiar? Aunt Sally and Uncle Billy show up at your house for Thanksgiving dinner. Before the turkey even comes out of the oven, Aunt Sally criticizes you about your cooking and cleaning and deflates your holiday spirit. Uncle Billy then spoils the holiday dinner—again—by picking political fights with everyone at the table. Later, your cousin Connie corners you in the kitchen and discloses way too much information about her personal life, while your other cousin Mike embarrasses you by asking why you haven’t been promoted yet. Meanwhile, your father-in-law drives you nuts with his unsolicited career advice. It seems, once again, like this year’s holiday season will be awash with irritating and/or awkward moments courtesy of your beloved relatives.

If the above scene hits a little too close to home, says Geoffrey Tumlin, you’re not alone. For many of us, spending time in close quarters with people who push our buttons is what comes with the holiday territory. Unfortunately, the comments we must fend off from the holiday Grinches in our lives can easily lead to volatile interactions.

“We want joy and peace during the holidays, but we often end up with frustration and conflict,” says Tumlin, author of the new book Stop Talking, Start Communicating: Counterintuitive Secrets to Success in Business and in Life (McGraw-Hill, August 2013, ISBN: 978-0-0718130-4-4, $20.00, www.tumlin.com). “It’s no surprise that 24 percent of respondents to a Consumer Reports poll admit that a few relatives make them dread the holidays. But it doesn’t have to be this way. The holidays are the worst time of year for strife and anxiety because we’re supposed to be celebrating and strengthening our most important relationships. It’s up to us to prevent holiday irritants and challenging family members from hijacking our good cheer.”

When you get right down to it, most holiday arguments are pointless and counterproductive: Do Uncle Billy’s politics really matter? So what if our father-in-law gives us questionable career advice or a cousin asks us awkward questions? And why should Aunt Sally’s cooking critiques get under our skin so much?

“We make two errors when we react to irritating people at the holidays,” asserts Tumlin. “First, we escalate a frustrating or awkward moment into a damaging one. And second, we erroneously magnify the influence of people who really aren’t much of a factor in our daily lives.”

Instead of being drawn into fights when there’s supposed to be peace on earth and goodwill toward all men—including Uncle Billy—letting go of most irritants and sidestepping virtually all conflict are smart ways to preserve holiday harmony.

And that’s where Stop Talking, Start Communicating comes in. Full of counterintuitive yet concrete advice, it draws on Tumlin’s considerable experience as a communication consultant to show readers how to improve their interactions with loved ones at the holidays and beyond to prevent damaging conflict and to develop more productive communication habits.

Here, Tumlin shares ideas for ducking unnecessary arguments with five common types of holiday Grinches, whom you might encounter during one of this year’s holiday gatherings.

The constant critic. Aunt Sally finds fault with the way you run your household…and so much more.

The holidays provide a target-rich environment for critics: The cooking, the cleaning, the kids, your house, and more are on display. But even the most persistent critic loses interest when his or her jabs don’t get a response.

“Critics want to get a rise out of you,” says Tumlin, “so thoughtless reactions are counterproductive because they give the critic exactly what she wants. The most effective way to discourage a critic is to withhold a response.”

One of the hardest things to do at the holidays—or any time of year—is to hold your tongue in the presence of a nitpicker. But that’s precisely the best course of action. Take a breath, say nothing, and let it go. Silence reduces the motivation of a critic much more than a visible response. For your own proof, look no farther than last year.

“You’ve probably already tried reacting by jabbing back at a critic, and that didn’t work because your sharp jab likely triggered her right hook and further escalation,” says Tumlin. “So why not try the opposite approach this year? Don’t fuel a critic’s tank by giving her the response she wants. Ignore her thrust instead and she’ll be more likely to lose interest.”

The graceless questioner. Your cousin Mike asks: “Weren’t you supposed to get a promotion last year?” and “How come you aren’t married yet?”

How can Mike manage to eat the holiday meal with his foot constantly in his mouth? His underdeveloped tactfulness radar just doesn’t do a good job of filtering out inappropriate questions. He may not intend to cause awkwardness and embarrassment, but that’s the end result.

“Don’t escalate an uncomfortable situation into a damaging one by taking offense at a poorly conceived question,” cautions Tumlin. “Instead, answer as simply and as blandly as possible: ‘Promotions are on hold company-wide because of budget constraints’ or ‘I’m still looking for Ms. Right.’

“The goal when facing an embarrassing question is to move away from it as quickly as possible,” says Tumlin. “Anything you do that highlights the question or extends the conversation, like getting upset or giving a long answer, will be counterproductive. Quick and boring answers are your very best responses to graceless questioners like Mike.”

The relentless arguer. Uncle Billy wants to argue with you about politics, current events, or virtually anything.

Uncle Billy will debate you about the president, argue about the gold standard, and then tangle with you about the best team in the NFL. (Hint: It’s not your team.) But here’s the thing: These are the same arguments you had with him last year, and the year before that, and the year before that.

“The clearest indicator that a holiday fight is useless is if you argue about the same thing every year,” Tumlin asserts. “Your prior arguments haven’t delivered anything except ruffled feathers and quickened heart rates. So why not change the subject or avoid tangling with a relentless arguer entirely this holiday season? Don’t expect a change from Uncle Billy—he’s a serial arguer—but that doesn’t mean that bickering with him is inevitable.

“If you don’t want to argue, don’t. Practice your listening skills instead and bone up on the fine art of rendering a well-placed ‘um-hmm.’ It takes two to tangle, but you can be the one who creates harmony by disengaging from useless holiday arguments,” says Tumlin.

The unsolicited advisor. Your father-in-law knows just what you should be doing to get ahead at work and—for that matter—in all facets of your life.

Your father-in-law, who retired right around the time the Interweb was getting hooked up, somehow fancies himself a wellspring of contemporary career knowledge. However, his well-meaning—but outdated—advice drives you nuts. What should you do? Absolutely nothing.

“Be honest,” says Tumlin, “you’re not going to act on unsolicited advice anyway, so you might as well let the other person talk. People who give unsolicited advice are often doing it as much for themselves as they are doing it for you.

“Your father-in-law’s career advice probably stems from his hopes that everything will be rosy for your family,” he adds. “As long as he’s giving advice and not harping on what you’re doing wrong, his intentions are probably admirable. His advice isn’t going to hurt you, but may help him feel better, so let the guy talk. The last thing you want to do is overreact to his honorable intentions and cause real damage.”

The shameless discloser. Your cousin Connie tells you—and anyone else within earshot—way too much about what’s going on in her private life.

For some reason, your cousin Connie appears unfamiliar with the concept of too much information. She readily discloses unflattering personal information about her new boyfriend and the results of her most recent medical exam. Her private disclosures have become staples of your holidays just like the turkey and dressing.

Of course, we shouldn’t blow off meaningful disclosures, but those aren’t the kinds of secrets that drive us crazy. It’s one thing to provide an empathetic ear to Connie if she’s having problems with her boyfriend, but another matter entirely to hear private relationship information. You would commiserate with Connie all day long about a real health issue, but the specifics of her physical exam are definitely details you could have done without.

Why does Connie disclose so many unflattering secrets? Who knows? Maybe she craves attention, maybe she wants to see a reaction, or maybe she just doesn’t perceive her secrets as being such a big deal. Whatever the reason, your response is the same.

“The best strategy for handling awkward disclosures is to play dumb and not express any interest whatsoever,” says Tumlin. “Pretend like the discloser is reciting her grocery list and put on your best poker face. With any luck, she’ll take the hint and stop spilling her secrets.”

“Most of the people who antagonize us during the holidays are scarcely a presence in our lives the other 360+ days of the year,” says Tumlin. “Don’t permit yourself to have a reactive response to any holiday Grinch or frustrating family member. To do so will transform an awkward moment into a damaging one. There’s a lot to celebrate when you don’t allow challenging people to get under your skin during the holidays.”

About the Author:
Geoffrey Tumlin is the author of Stop Talking, Start Communicating: Counterintuitive Secrets to Success in Business and in Life. He is the founder and CEO of Mouthpeace Consulting LLC, a communication consulting company; president of On-Demand Leadership, a leadership development company; and founder and board chair of Critical Skills Nonprofit, a 501(c)(3) public charity dedicated to providing communication and leadership skills training to chronically underserved populations. His writing on communication and leadership has appeared in scholarly journals, newspapers, and textbooks, including Discourse Studies, the International Leadership Journal, the Encyclopedia of Leadership, the Austin American-Statesman, and five editions of Professional Communication Skills.

Tumlin holds a PhD and an MA in communication from the University of Texas at Austin and a BS from West Point. He received the Eyes of Texas Excellence Award in 2010 for his work as the assistant director of the Center for Ethical Leadership at the University of Texas at Austin. He was a faculty fellow at the University of Texas at Austin’s RGK Center for Philanthropy and Community Service and a Cátedras Laboris Fellow at the University of Monterrey in Nuevo León, Mexico.

Tumlin currently serves as trustee of the National Communication Association’s Mark L. Knapp Award Individual Endowment, the most prestigious interpersonal communication honor bestowed annually by the National Communication Association in recognition of career contributions to the academic study of interpersonal communication. Tumlin has taught thousands of people about communication and leadership and has consulted with some of the most prestigious organizations in the world, including Shell Oil, Wyeth Pharmaceuticals, the Boston Scientific Corporation, Hibernia National Bank (now Capital One Bank), Blue Star Management, and the Honolulu Police Department. He lives in Austin, Texas.

You can learn more about Geoffrey Tumlin at www.tumlin.com, and you can reach him by e-mail at geoff@tumlin.com.

About the Book:
Stop Talking, Start Communicating: Counterintuitive Secrets to Success in Business and in Life (McGraw-Hill, August 2013, ISBN: 978-0-0718130-4-4, $20.00, www.tumlin.com) is available at bookstores nationwide, from major online booksellers, and at www.tumlin.com.

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