3 Tips for Avoiding Christmas (and Other Holiday) Party Conflict

Is your mission this Christmas season to avoid holiday party conflict?  Does it seem like mission impossible?  Believe it or not, with a little planning, preparation, and persistence you can bring peace back to your gathering.

Christmas parties are supposed to be fun.  They are supposed to be celebrations where people connect and build relationships.  Right?  So why is that whether it’s a family, work, team, church or other gathering of people CONFLICT always seems to be the uninvited guest?

You can take control back, and restore peace and harmony to the room, by following these 3 tips.

  1. Guide the Topics

Before the party do a little planning.  Spend some time thinking of topics that will probably interest the people invited.  Here’s the key.  Choose NON-Controversial topics.  This means no politics; no election talk, federal state or local.  Particularly in our current political climate nothing can sour an event like a political fight.  Think carefully about the topics you choose.  In some groups sports can be a safe subject, but in others it will fall flat or stir the pot of strife.  I live in San Diego.  Don’t ask about the Chargers in my neck of the woods.  You don’t have to stick to the weather (besides that can lead to a heated argument about global warming.)  A safe go-to topic in my circles is the Olympics.  They are coming up this winter.  Most people have a favorite Olympic event, or athlete or memory.  Most people find at least one event confusing or weird.  One year for a family Christmas dinner I printed up old photos of everyone as a child, and used them as decorations and as table setting place holders.  It spontaneously started fun conversations of shared good memories.  This can be tricky for the less outgoing person.  It can feel a little forced or like you are steering the ship.  But that’s okay.  You are steering the ship:  AWAY from the iceberg of conflict.

  1. Ask Questions

People love to share what they know and love.  If they bring up a topic that seems likely to be a safe conversation, stretch it out by asking questions.   Let them be the expert.  It’s like giving an extra gift; people enjoy being able to inform other people about the things they care about.  Are they restoring a car?  Ask them about it.  Did they just take a culinary class? Or join a bowling league? Or get a pet?  Ask them about it.  Show interest. Did they take a trip to Orlando (or Dallas or Paris or wherever)?  Ask specific questions to keep the conversation going in a good direction. Ask them about the weather they experienced, the people the met, the things they saw, what they would recommend in the city.  Was it their first time?  What was different this time? Ask others in the room if they have been there. Play your own secret game of 20 questions.  You may want to do some preparation in advance for this.  Think back to past conversations or do a little social media snooping.  Did they post about coaching their daughter’s soccer team?  Or share their daily run log? Or get in tagged in a photo on a roller coaster?  Surely you can think of questions to ask from that.  It may not be the most stimulating conversation you have ever had, but the results will be better for your digestion than letting the topic slip to taxes, so keep asking those questions.

  1. Don’t Pick Up the Other End of the Rope

Conflict is like a tug a war.  Just because one person tugs on the rope, doesn’t mean you have to pick up the other end.  If your co-worker, uncle, or neighbor brings up impeachment, terrorism, the Raiders moving to Vegas, or any other conflict sparking topic of conversation, gently and persistently decline to engage.  A little humor can help shut down a topic without offending.  A joke about the research on the mix pie and political talk causing indigestion might work.  Become a quick change artist.  Practice some smooth conversation transitions in advance.  Does your brother-in-law always bring up congress at the dinner table?  Watch a documentary or read on article on a congressman from 1900, or on the marble they used in the construction of the chambers, or some other slightly related but un-controversial topic, and hijack the conversation.  Does your colleague always bring up the minimum wage debate at office parties?  Be prepared for that to remind you of a funny story at your first job as a teenager this time. This can require some persistence.  Some people like to stir the pot and start the fights.  Others don’t even realize they are doing it.  Either way, if you want to maintain the peace, you have to be vigilant and resist the urge to engage in the battle.  If all else fails, you might want to firmly tell the conflict prone person that you value relationships more than the issues and that you would really appreciate if they would make an effort to avoid conflict causing topics at the party.

Esther DeWitt, M.S., CAMS, is an organizational psychology practitioner specializing in conflict, emotional management and leadership issues.  She is a Credentialed Mediator and Certified Anger Management Specialist.  As president of Conflict Navigation, her services include mediation, leadership and organizational consulting and training, anger management coaching, conflict coaching and curriculum and material development.

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