Calming Holiday Conflicts
© 2016 Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.
When family and friends gather for this holiday season, it can be a time of joy—and conflict. This year, after 18 months of a bruising campaign for President of the United States, there will be added tension if family members and friends voted for opposing candidates. News reports indicate that some people are even uninviting family members and friends because of how they voted. I hope this is not widespread. Instead, here’s a few tips which may be helpful for calming holiday conflicts of any type:
Separate the person from the problem: This has been an important concept since the landmark book Getting to Yes was published over 30 years ago about principled negotiations. It has guided dispute resolvers to help people in conflict reach agreements despite bad feelings between them. No matter how much we may dislike a person or group, it does not help to demonize them. Instead, it helps to talk about behavior and policies, and not to criticize the person. Yes, there are strong political differences which were heightened during this campaign and people may remain out-spoken about them; but let’s stay focused on the issues rather than the person.
Consider the 5 to 1, positive to negative ratio: Many years ago, the marriage researchers John and Julia Gottman identified the “magic ratio” of 5 to 1 in their book Why Marriages Succeed or Fail. If there are five positive interactions to every negative interaction, then the marriage is healthy and sustainable. Using this approach, they have been able to predict that those with more negative interactions to positive will end up unhappy and likely to divorce. This same approach can apply to family and friends over the holidays. Emphasize the positive you have in common, rather than the negative differences. If you talk about disagreements for a few minutes, follow it up with five times more positive things to discuss or fun things to do together.
Speak up in a friendly manner about inappropriate behavior: Concerns about bullying have grown this year, for schoolchildren as well as between genders, races, religions and other identities. When someone makes an inappropriate comment, you can just say “That’s enough, Joe!” rather than escalating it into a major confrontation. It’s easier to actually say that, than to gear up to give someone else a lecture about their behavior. There’s already too much negative lecturing on the internet these days. In face-to-face interactions, we can keep it civil without stifling our concerns.
Give each other empathy, attention and respect: Regardless of opinions or behavior, everyone does better when they receive each other’s empathy, attention and respect. We teach this as “EAR Statements®.” They can calm conflict and help people feel connected, rather than feeling like enemies. This helps us focus on the problem, not the person. As human beings, we have the ability to resolve major differences because we can have empathy for each other. I have seen this happen over and over again in mediation, collaborative practice and other non-adversarial methods of resolving conflicts. Even in adversarial legal disputes and political disputes, people can still treat each other with dignity and respect—and most do.
Role models of peaceful conflict resolution: Despite our differences, we have had a peaceful election and are preparing a peaceful transition of government. This is truly amazing when we see so many unresolved and violent conflicts around the world. Let’s be role models of peace as we head into this holiday season and our collective political future.
Bill Eddy is a lawyer, therapist, and mediator. He is the co-founder and Training Director of the High Conflict Institute, a training and consultation firm that trains professionals to deal with high-conflict people and situations. He is the author of several books and methods for handling high conflict personalities and high conflict disputes with the most difficult people.