As wonderful as holiday gatherings can be, they can also be challenging for those of us who are navigating conflict with loved ones, or have a difficult family history. (In other words, most of us.) But a strained relationship doesn’t have to ruin the holidays: Here are six expert-recommended ways to rebuild a connection with family and friends this year and make the most of your time together.
Mentally prepare with a positive attitude.
Before the get-together, imagine the best outcome, urges communication expert Patti Wood, author of Snap: Making the Most of First Impressions, Body Language & Charisma (buy from Amazon, $13.43). “Jot it down to make it concrete, like, I sat down with X and we really connected,” she says. And if you’re gearing up to see someone with whom you have a strained relationship, let “sense memory” soothe your stress. “For example, I’ve been listening to the music my sister and I enjoyed as kids, when we were closer, to reinforce that positive association and make it easier to talk to her now that there’s some distance between us.”
Start off with good memories.
The most important social lubricant is also the simplest: curiosity. Show yours with two words: best and next. “Last summer, I got together with 14 relatives I hadn’t seen in a year, and just asking them, ‘What’s the best thing that’s happened to you since last we talked?’ and ‘What are you looking forward to next?’ let us get past walls we built up,” Wood says. A funny thing happens when you do this: “People associate you with the good things in their life; I’ve found they call me more to tell me about their next adventure.”
Spark deep conversations.
Showing vulnerability with those you trust is the best way to get beyond small talk, says psychologist Joshua Coleman, co-founder of Standing Together, a center for advancing awareness of family estrangement. “Simply admitting, ‘This has been a tough year,’ invites them to open up too,” he says. Adds Wood, “Or just tell them, ‘I really want to know what’s going on with you — I miss our closeness.’” Even if they don’t reciprocate, saying it out loud helps you move forward.
Start with your heart.
More than 40 percent of Americans have experienced a family rift, says therapist Alison McKleroy, author of Essential Strategies for Social Anxiety (buy from Amazon, $12.89). “Start with self-compassion by reminding yourself you’re not alone,” she says. Then create a plan to protect yourself if things get heated, by, say, excusing yourself to call a friend. “Only after you show yourself empathy can you focus on others.”
Often we’re not even sure what happened to create the rift, says Wood. “You might say, ‘I’m feeling tension between us, and I’d like to get to the other side of it. Is this something we can talk about?’ Once you express yourself, the hurt will finally be able to leave your body.”
It’s okay not to talk.
For all the talk about talking, it’s just as important to open up about not being ready to open up – especially for a very strained relationship. “You might call ahead of the gathering and say, ‘I’m not really ready to talk about X, but it’ll be nice to see you,’” says Coleman. Being clear about your expectations calms anxiety for both parties. And if you’re facing someone else’s boundaries: “I hear a lot from adult children that they feel pressured by their parents to reconcile. In this case, take the lead and say, ‘I know we’re going to be seeing each other, and I just wanted to let you know I’m not going to push.’” This lays groundwork for moving forward. The holidays may not be the best time to heal wounds, but they are a great time for fresh starts.
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This article originally appeared in our print magazine, Woman’s World.