Who’s hosting it this year?
Who’s putting up Uncle Jim for the night?
When are we opening presents?
Do we walk before or after the Queen’s Speech?
I’d like to give out the tree presents, if no-one objects…
Who gets the turkey breast?
Why didn’t my Step-Daughter get a card from you?
No wonder so many people seriously think about having a Caribbean Christmas. Family festivities can be far from the ideal picture offered by films: differing interests, sibling rivalries, in-law inequalities, pressure and unasked for responsibility all seem to be common themes of many peoples’ experiences. Against a cultural soundtrack of peace, goodwill, harmony and high expectations, the track called “who gets their say and their way” is the one we all know the words to.
Those heightened expectations can be the biggest source of tension because it sets us up for a mismatch with reality. We’d probably all wish it could be Christmas everyday if it could be as smooth as in our best hopes. Sadly, reality and experience suggest that modern Christmas and conflict are made for each-other, with dissipated energy and clashes of needs waiting gift-wrapped under the tree.
If you’ve asked Father Christmas for a conflict coach this year, you’re in luck. These suggestions should see you through the season, if not with cheer and goodwill, then at least with more self-awareness and calm:
Step One: Start with yourself. Monitor your bodily symptoms when you enter moments of anxiety, threat, envy, frustration or despair and sense of failure. This sounds unpleasant, but your body is actually doing you a favour by giving these signals. In fact, it’s gearing up to give you a positive notice to ‘watch out’. That’s what body symptoms are for.
So take care of your body and be mindful of it – meditate on the symptoms of queasiness and head pressure that most of us get in some form during the merry season. Learn to be a curious scientist about yourself, monitoring closely what’s happening, rather than a refugee fleeing discomfort. Your body will notice the respect you are giving it and quieten itself under your care, at least a little. Feeling more centred makes you more resourceful for handling conflict.
Step Two: Monitor your assumptions about other people. They may not be able to avoid irritating you with their one-upmanship comments in their Christmas round robin letters. But equally they may have no malign intention to put you down. So be kind in your perceptions, to yourself and to your relatives. They might not only mean well, but will respond to your graceful kindness. You could also bring in a sense of proportionality – after all, there are real, physical and tragic conflicts playing out somewhere in the world at this very moment.
Step Three: Engage with respect, not with retaliation or silent armour. Use language that neutralises choices and respects yours and everyone else’s autonomy. ‘Look we have some choices here. We don’t all have to go for a walk at the same time. We can be different and together.’
Step Four: If you’ve worked on steps one to three, and there’s still Christmas deadlock, it’s time to bring in Santa’s little helpers. Can you bring an informal mediator into the equation – maybe the local vicar for a tot of Christmas sherry, or Aunty Maude with a funny story to lighten a tense atmosphere? There’s bound to be something that can tilt the dynamic back towards a more even keel – what would Old Saint Nic say to quell the tension?
If all else fails, as one of my seminar participants recently remarked after hearing of my professional mediation work compared to an in-depth survey of self-help techniques – ‘No, I think it’s simpler to go with the professional mediator route for my Christmas with the family!’
After hearing this, I decided to ask my wife for some glossy “Christmas Mediator” business cards as a gift this year. Trouble is, I will have to miss our family Christmas…