Christmas dinner with your partner’s family for the first time, and have serious holiday stress? Or just want this to finally be the year you don’t react to your parent’s prodding?
Counsellors and psychotherapists are pros at navigating other people. Editor Andrea Blundell helps you learn some of their tools so you can get through Christmas dinner in one piece.
Christmas dinner vs therapist tactics
1. Reflect like a star.
Therapists are amazing listeners.
And listening is a kind of magic – others are suddenly at ease, and the more they talk about themselves, the more they like you (yes, even your future mother-in-law).
True, counsellors spend years learning how to be a highly attuned listener. But you can learn key tips.
First, don’t be planning what to say next in your head, which means you come across as distracted. Just fully focus on what the person is saying, repeating it in your head if it helps.
Then do what is called ‘reflecting back’. This means you take what they said and repeat it back, with slight variation. “I ran the marathon ten times and hurt my back.”/ “You ran the marathon ten times but and ended up with an injury?”. The other person rarely realises you are repeating what they say, but will continue on, feeling good they are being listened to.
This is also a great technique to use if you are stuck talking with a family member who tends to be nosy or to upset you. It stops you from reacting. And if you have misunderstood their seemingly rude comment, it gives them a chance to clear up the mistake and explain what they really meant.
2. Ask the right questions.
photo by Eugene Xhyvchik
Ever notice how counsellors and coaches know just the right question to have you realising the craziest things?
Questions break up all your reflecting back, and help you connect over things that interest you.
But if you ask people ‘why’ questions, it can first sound accusatory. It then also sends the person down a ‘rabbit hole’ of analysis. Why did they do that, after all? It makes them think of the past, when they might not want to.
If you are often accused of being too ‘intense’, you are probably asking too many ‘why’ questions.
‘What’ and ‘How’ questions, on the other hand, are more forward looking, or more factual.
For example, imagine someone tells you, “This is the first year I am away from my kids”. “Why is that?” is very wide and can seem judgemental. But, “How is that going for you?”, or “What are you going to do instead?” are more manageable and useful.
3. Set clear boundaries.
A good therapist is very focussed on boundaries. In your first session, he or she will let you know what theirs are — how early you need to cancel sessions, behaviour that isn’t tolerated, etc.
How are your boundaries with family? Do you feel like each get together you end up agreeing to things you don’t want to do? Or end up humiliated by the retelling of the same horrible childhood stories?
Read our article on saying no before you go to Christmas dinner and be ready to say it loud and clear.
And take aside that family member who loves to tell stories. Keep it calm and friendly, and between you and them. You appreciate they love making people laugh and mean well, but this year you don’t want the stories told, end of (if you are worried, read our article, ‘How to Communicate Under Stress.”
4. Show “unconditional positive regard”.
Unconditional positive regard, or “UPR”, was created by Carl Rogers, the father of person-centred counselling.
UPR isn’t about pretending to like others, or overlooking their bad behaviour. And it certainly isn’t sympathy, feeling sorry for someone, or codependency, agreeing or helping even if you don’t want to.
UPR simply means you see others as resourceful humans doing their best. No matter how grating your uncle’s new girlfriend is, just accept she has resources and is doing her best, and notice how the annoyance fades away.
And when you find yourself dying to give advice (note that unwanted advice is a fast route to upsetting others) then just remind yourself, that person has their own resources. You can trust them to find their own way forward.
5. Make it present (not presents).
A good therapist is fully present to you. They are not thinking about their life outside the room, or distracted by anything. Their attention is on what is in front of them — you.
Being present to the moment – also called ‘being mindful’ – means we are less likely to miss nuances and overreact.
For example, if your sister says, ‘nice sweater’, and you are not in the present but thinking about last year when she was in a bad mood with you? You might snap at her.
If you are mindful, fully in the present? You might notice she is in a good mood and smiling, and truly likes your sweater.
Have a mindfulness practise? A short mindfulness meditation before Christmas dinner can make all the difference. (If you want to learn now, go read our easy “Guide to Mindfulness“).
If not, use a mindfulness ‘trick’ whenever you notice you are caught up in your head or feeling stressed and edgy, such as:
- Put your attention on your feet, noticing the ground beneath you.
- Or focus on your breath coming in and out and breathe deeply, and on dropping and relaxing your arms and shoulders.
- Find one thing around you for each of your senses, a colour, a smell, a taste, a sound, a feeling like your shirt on your arm.
And the best tip for next year?
Is your family always driving you nuts? Or always anxious when it comes to any sort of social event?
Why not make this year the one you invest in yourself and start therapy. From better relating to more confidence, you’ll be the big surprise at next year’s Christmas dinner.
Harley Therapy connects you with highly regarded therapists in central London. Not in the city? Use our booking site to find a registered therapist near you, or an online therapist you can talk to no matter what your location.
Have your own tip for navigating Christmas dinner you want to share with other readers? Use the comment box below.
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