Your extended family is, on the whole, colorful and fun. At holiday get-togethers, you enjoy Uncle Bob’s fishing stories, Cousin Kathy’s tales of office intrigue, and Grandpa Tony’s reminiscences. But then there’s that one person — the one who can be counted on to tell the racist joke, dominate the conversation with a made-for-cable political screed, or otherwise create an atmosphere in which everybody stares at the floor and longs to drop through it.
How can you keep your cool during these difficult moments — and how might you talk to your family member about the discomfort he or she creates? Psychologist and coach Amy Johnson, PhD, has some timely advice for handling a difficult relative.
- Don’t take it personally. “In family settings, people are particularly prone to personalize disagreements and other problems,” says Johnson. Remember that, though the problematic person is really bothering you, he or she is probably not actually aiming to spoil your holiday.
- Have a friendly talk. Johnson suggests sitting down for a one-to-one talk with the person you’re in conflict with to address the behavior that’s getting under your skin. “It probably should be in a place and at a time that’s removed from family functions and other family members — don’t gang up on Uncle Bill — and you should do your utmost to make Uncle Bill feel comfortable and appreciated.” Buttering him up with praise to prepare him for the occasion isn’t the point, however — he’ll see through it. Just project kindness and love in your tone and demeanor.
- Address behavior, not character. In talking with Uncle Bill, says Johnson, the key thing is to let him know that you are bothered by specific behaviors — you’re not judging his character or opinions: “When you tell those kinds of jokes, I feel uncomfortable,” or “Sometimes you kind of take charge of the conversation in a way that makes it hard for me to express myself.”
- Address only your own discomfort. Rather than condemning a person’s behavior as abstractly bad or wrong, or bringing in the rest of the family as backup (“Everyone else agrees with me”), focus entirely on the fact that it makes you uncomfortable, suggests Johnson.
- Remember his or her good qualities. No matter how difficult certain aspects of the person’s behavior can be, he or she comes with a full battery of human traits, including some really good ones. Keeping these in mind, Johnson says, can help make your quiet talk with the person easier on both of you — and keep you calmer if the behavior doesn’t change.
- Accept your powerlessness. “If you have a talk with the person, remember to allow her to make the response that she makes,” Johnson says. You don’t have the power to make her change her behavior, or to agree with you. She may be offended, and that, too, is her business. “The important thing for your peace of mind is that you have told your truth. Having done that, let go.”
- Embrace family differences. “There are as many different visions of reality in a family as there are people,” says Johnson. The fact that not everyone agrees with you about Cousin Sarah’s behavior and what to do about it shouldn’t stop you from stating your truth, but it shouldn’t make you sore at your relatives either.
- Get outside support. “There’s a certain magic in family gatherings that puts you right back into familiar roles — caretaker, the responsible one, whatever — with all the discomfort that may come along with them,” says Johnson. “When dealing with any uncomfortable situation at a family gathering, it’s a good idea to have available, by phone or some other way, a friend who knows and supports the person you are now.”
- Be of service. Ultimately, you have the option of removing yourself from the living room when Cousin Al gets going — and one of the best ways to do that is to offer to help. Do the dishes, run errands, take care of kids, or help with the cooking.
This originally appeared in “All in the Family: Stop Dreading Family Gatherings” in the November 2013 issue of Experience Life.