The usual characters: communicating with difficult family members at Christmas

There are 9 days until Christmas. While I have 90% of the shopping done, there are aspects of Christmas day that I am not looking forward to. There is always that one family member at lunch who grinds my gears. Though it hasn’t always been the same agitator (different things bothered me at different ages) there has always been (at least) one person who seems to go out of their way to be carelessly upsetting.


I feel that I am not alone in this. Every family has their own unique brand of crazy, right?


This year I am going to try something new so I don’t revert in to the 15 year old version of myself who overreacts and flounces out of the room. So here is what I am going to try to combat some common family frustrations.



The grandmother who tells back-to-back stories about very distant relatives and connects these stories with “and” so you have no way of politely excusing yourself from the conversation. Tactic – there are some very interesting things that grandparents went through (like the war, rationing etc). Ask questions about some of these experiences and view the interaction as getting a snapshot of history.


The pontificating father who talks about his own opinions only so conversations are one way: he talks, you listen. Tactic – Try using active listening skills to reflect the key message of what he has said before (quickly) moving on to a topic of your own choosing. For example, “You felt annoyed that the price of fuel had tripled since you started driving. I’ve been driving a bit for work and work is really going well [insert work story here]”.


The disagreeable cousin who seems to have the opposite view on everything and wants to vigorously debate the topic because he believes that your opinion is wrong. Tactic – Arguing with him will only entrench him further within his opinion. This is called the backfire effect. When we argue our point we further buy in to our belief so instead be curious about his position. Ask him open questions and seek to understand his perspective. Then ask questions about gaps in his argument with a nice nonjudgmental attitude like “what are your thoughts about…?”


The intrusive aunt who asks you why you are single/not married/don’t have a baby? The implication is that you wont be happy until you have these things. This one is tough. All I can recommend is that you work hard on filtering your initial response (deep breaths, people). Put your work voice on and treat this person like a difficult customer. Nothing personal, just business.


One strategy my other half uses is to treat these gatherings like a computer game.

  • Create an avatar who can tolerate family. Picture that you are this secret identity and respond with that persona.
  • Gather allies by going out of your way to talk to those family members that you have fun with. Don’t forget about your younger relatives. Do you remember how important you felt when older cousins drew you in to conversation when you were a kid? Pay that forward.
  • Find power ups by having positive interactions and fun experiences where you can.


If nothing else, remember these gatherings cant last forever. Christmas is only one day and it too will pass.



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