Q: The holidays were pretty hard for my family, or at least for me being around my family with some neighbors. We always have people to our house on Christmas Eve, when the rest of my family is staying with us. It got really awkward with some conflict that came up a few times, and I didn’t know how to handle it. A few of my siblings and my father argued with each other and with two of my neighbors about different issues, but mostly about how children should behave and politics. When it starts to get loud and intense, I freeze up and don’t say anything. I could tell my neighbors weren’t happy and my family was upset too. I felt I should have done something about it so it was a peaceful Christmas Eve, but I need some advice on what to do. My father and two of my brothers and one sister are all very opinionated and stubborn. They won’t back down, and they will never apologize for being rude. This made a tense atmosphere, which lasted into Christmas Day because I was upset about it. Please give me some help on how to deal with conflict without getting attacked or making everyone upset.

A: Relationships are complicated at the best of times. So many factors at play, so many possibilities. Our personal history will influence whether we engage in the conflict or dance with “fight or flight.” Running from a potential conflict, remaining stuck in our anger, we apply all our energy to escaping, as the emotion builds. Anger that is ignored eventually becomes more destructive, as at some point it either is unleashed on someone undeserving (such as with your family members and neighbors) or released as uncontrolled rage. Neither is productive or healthy.

Just the idea of conflict creates anxiety for many. If you can think about this differently, I suggest reframing conflict as being about different perspectives, different interests. When people believe they need to win, that the other person(s) must lose, tension escalates and/or anxiety increases. From your description of what transpired at your home on Christmas Eve, I suspect you had expectations of a festive evening of entertaining your extended family and your neighbors. You mentioned your siblings and father can be rude and argumentative, suggesting you’ve experienced conflict with them more than a few times, so my first suggestion is to be proactive. If you know trouble can easily brew with certain people attending your gathering, intervene ahead of time by discussing your expectations. It’s normal to continue replaying any conflict over and over, both in your own mind, as well as what you tell others about it. It then becomes “the truth about what happened,” although it isn’t.

It’s certainly not intentional to make up stories about our conflicts, but it’s human nature to fill in the blanks with things we don’t understand about the people or the situation. We make assumptions about the people with whom we have prior experience that hasn’t gone well. These assumptions help support our judgments, overlooking that these are subjective — they are opinions, not facts. Assuming there is a negative history with these people (as with your dad and siblings), our stories take on a darker tone. The attitude we bring to any challenging conversation — whether we are involved or simply witness to it — will play a critical role in the outcome. How we think and feel, our assumptions, how calm and grounded we are, our perspective, and how well we attend to the other’s needs, will matter a great deal. The dynamics will be tempered by how we frame the problem with the others involved. Let’s consider how to change the situation rather than trying to change the problem behavior of the other person.

Try digging beneath the challenging behaviors and contentious dynamics to get to the root. Rather than assuming the behavior problems and conflict are what you see on the surface, study the circumstances and situations that chronically ignite them. Ask yourself something like: “When does this usually happen? Are there similarities that speak to what’s at the root of the problem? When there’s conflict, what are the circumstances?” Attend to the situation challenges that might have been ignored. What changes in the environment or the expectations might be sparking difficult behaviors? Consider how you might create solutions for their disruptive, contentious behavior by changing what you can in the environment.

Conflict can cause considerable difficulty and be unsettling. It requires us to be our best, strongest selves, to bring to the table our authentic perspective and to expect to be treated with kindness, respect and understanding. When someone in our presence isn’t willing to listen or try to understand others’ perspectives, it’s a good time to draw boundaries that clearly indicate his/her behavior isn’t acceptable. What makes it hard is trusting our right to do that, with strong self-esteem and confidence.

To free ourselves from conflict, we must first understand the source of our/their anger, drawing it in closely. We can let it wash over us, sinking into the discomfort, rather than focusing on the other person, who will always be easier to blame. However we behave in an unbalanced relationship, giving up power to someone else, we can expect there will be residual emotions needing our attention. Ignoring our anger ultimately displaces it to somewhere else, typically with someone who is not the problem. With most conflict in our lives, the conversation needs to happen first with ourselves, rather than with the other person. Dropping into the uncomfortable feelings will bring us closer to understanding our reactions, helping us to uncover the root of our anger, or of our anxiety with witnessing someone else’s.

When conflict comes up again, which it inevitably will (with your family members or with anyone else), resonating with that fight-or-flight reaction, work on staying present with where those involved are. Try helping them determine what their discomfort is trying to tell them and shielding them from.

Wishing you and yours the very best in 2019.

Please send me your questions.