Use these job skills to deal with your most difficult family members this holiday season

You’ve gotten this far at your job by knowing what to say and how to say it. Use those well-honed talents to get through holiday dinners unscathed.

Use these job skills to deal with your most difficult family members this holiday season
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It’s holiday time again, and for many that means lots of time with family and friends. And even though you’re spending time celebrating with the people you love, for many, such togetherness is not without its stressors.


Relationships with family and longtime friends may be loaded with triggers and patterns that make them tricky to navigate, says executive performance coach Neeta Bhushan, author of Emotional GRIT: 8 Steps to Master Your Emotions, Transform Your Thoughts, and Change Your World. “The relationships are so intricate because they’ve known you and you’ve known them [for so long],” she says. This can make it difficult to be patient and not assume ill intent, especially if you’ve had negative or frustrating experiences in the past, she says. “It’s that Uncle Harry, who has always done something in a certain way. It’s going to be triggering you even more,” she says.

But, by day, you’re an accomplished professional, skilled at dealing with difficult people. You may have even been trained by your company to manage various personality types and steer tough conversations toward successful outcomes. Bhushan says you can use some of those same wisdom, leadership, and emotional intelligence skills to handle difficult personalities around the dinner table. Here are four common types and how you can cope.

The Opinionater

He wears his voting choice on his sleeve–or on his hat–and will tell you all the reasons why you’re wrong about the latest political news or polarizing current event. Ignoring conventional wisdom about discussing religion or politics, he dives into controversial conversations with the zeal of a teenager at a Taylor Swift concert.

How to deal: If you were dealing with an agitated coworker or employee at work, you’d likely work to defuse the situation by trying to understand their viewpoint, says conflict coach Kira Nurieli, founder of Harmony Strategies Group, which handles dispute resolution and mediation. Treat your opinionated family member the same way.

“People think that engaging in a political conversation means you are actively sharing your opinion. That doesn’t have to be the case,” she says. Use the same skills you use engaging an employee to get more information. Remove the emotion from it and ask open-ended questions about why he feels that way or what he things the benefits of his viewpoint are. You don’t need to engage. Let him speak and feel like someone is listening, she says. “You can use those kinds of questions, that kind of inquiry just to sort of get to know what that person’s perspective is in a non-judgmental way.” If you remove the emotion from the conversation, you may find that you have common ground, she adds.

Of course, if he’s the type who can’t engage that way, you’re free to remove yourself from the conversation, she says. Head to another room or strategically position yourself at the opposite end of the table.


The Boundary-Buster

No matter how accomplished you are, you’ll always be that awkward 12-year-old in their eyes. They treat you like a child and make comments on everything from your clothing choices to your career progression to your romantic life. Nothing stops them from crossing the parameters of polite and respectful conversation to put their nose in your business.

How to deal: Take a breath and try to get to a place of understanding rather than anger. The person may just be curious about your life and have a poor way of asking questions or making conversation, says Jasmijn Bol, a professor at Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business who teaches a course on “passive knowledge.” “Because depending on what the underlying motives are, I think your approach would be different,” Bol adds.

What are the reasons they’re asking? If a parent is asking indelicate questions because they’re worried about you, you may be able to answer in a way that alleviates the worry without revealing more than you wish. If the person is just asking to make conversation, you may be able to steer the question in another way, Bol says.

In such situations, you may need to be prepared for disappointing results–at least at first, Bhushan adds. When you reinforce boundaries or make it clear that you have new ones, sometimes people react negatively. Standing firm even when there is pushback is something to be proud of, she says.

The Freeloader

This is the person who shows up late with extra people in tow, and nary a side dish to offer. It’s not that the freeloader is a bad person, but they never offer the least bit of assistance. When dinner is over, they make themselves scarce, but can usually be found in front of the television while others clear away the meal. You’re lucky if you get a “thank you” out of this person as they walk out the door.

How to deal: It can be frustrating when others don’t help in the way you want them to. But, think about how you would handle such a situation in the office, Nurieli says. Did you make your expectations known? Were you clear with direction? If you wanted the person to bring something, did you ask them to do so? Be sure you have delegated properly and made your needs known, she says.


The Pot-Stirrer

Some people love drama. Whether they’re spilling someone’s confidences or gossiping about someone else, the pot-stirrer loves to create conflict or tension. Nothing makes them happier than to orchestrate an argument, and then sit back and watch the sparks fly, disavowing any responsibility for what’s happening.

How to deal: In such challenging dynamics, Nurieli defaults to empathetic curiosity. Many people are lonely, and family gatherings may give them an opportunity to demand attention. “A lot of people who are either teasing or belittling or are just engaging in a lot of conflict, they often want attention at these family functions. It’s often about attention,” she says.

What if you responded in a different way than engaging, she posits. You could try to direct positive focus on the pot-stirrer, focusing on good news or having a positive conversation. You could simply not react or remove yourself from the situation. Or you could ask questions that either probe why the person shared the story or change the conversation altogether. Sometimes, just listening to people is enough to get them to calm down, she adds.

“You’d be surprised how many times people come to mediation and they just want their say. This is what happens with family dynamics, people just want to be heard. They want to be validated. If you provide that then you don’t have to engage in conflicts,” she says.

One of the most effective overall methods of dealing with difficult family members is to try to come to the gathering with a blank slate, Bhushan says. “A lot of times we go into these things with the stressful feelings and the negative emotions. But what if it’s met with a completely blank slate? What you acted as if you were meeting some of the people for the very first time, even though you’ve known them your whole life?” she says. Shedding the assumptions and negativity around their intentions can make difficult behavior easier to tolerate–at least to get you through dinner.


About the author

Gwen Moran writes about business, money and assorted other topics for leading publications and websites. She was named a Small Business Influencer Awards Top 100 Champion in 2015, 2014, and 2012 and is the co-author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Business Plans (Alpha, 2010), and several other books