However positive our intentions, family gatherings never really bring out the best in us, do they? Take Christmas… a bucketful of prosecco, more sugar than you’d usually ingest in a month and hour upon tortuous hour spent jostling for elbow space with someone you wouldn’t take the time to poke on Facebook between January and November. As you settle down to dinner, aglow with Bucks Fizz-induced benevolence, you wonder why on earth you don’t spend more time together. Within a few hours, it’s become all too clear: they cheat at Pictionary. According to a survey by Travelodge, the average British family will have 5 rows on Christmas Day. Whether little Archie can’t keep his anguish at unwrapping the wrong Hatchimal under wraps, or it’s full on political civil war, if you’re prepared, you can avoid the fall out – and come out on top. Simply follow our 5 step guide to winning any argument…
1. Understand why you’re arguing
The kind of enforced proximity we enjoy/endure on special occasions is called hypercopresence – a fancy term for “a large dose of family at once”, according to Professor Melanie Booth-Butterfield. Inevitably, tensions rise when we are forced to relinquish our customary notions of control and personal space to a strict schedule of board games, Christmas TV specials and jostles over the last green triangle.
But be honest with yourself – is this really about Quality Street? You might be able to deal with your nephew’s compulsive phone-checking or your brother’s well worn knuckle cracking habit in small doses, but cram yourselves into a confined space for a few hours and those little bugbears swiftly become what Joe Palca, author of Annoying: the Science of What Bugs Us, terms “social allergens: small things that don’t elicit much of a reaction at first, but can lead to emotional explosions with repeated exposure”.
Seemingly petty arguments often hark back to deep-rooted issues of competition, power or favouritism. “If someone’s reaction is way bigger than the actual harm done to them, it’s old stuff,” asserts life coach and family mediator Candida Abrahamson. Fights about the extent to which certain parties are helping (or not) in the kitchen, for example, often stem from feelings of being taken for granted. Your gracious host or hostess might, in fact, be asking for recognition and praise rather than actual physical assistance.
Hypercopresence can also cause us to seek ways in which to reaffirm our own identities by asserting our differences, according to psychologist Chris Logan. “When we are all sitting around the same table, eating the same food, celebrating the same event, wearing the same terrible sweater, trying to justify our life choices to our parents, we might naturally focus our attention on those things that differentiate us from the others,” he explains.
2. Be prepared
The ways in which we consciously and unconsciously prime ourselves to deal with family get-togethers can make an enormous difference to the way in which we respond to any clashes. “If we walk in the front door thinking about past problems, we will likely be a contributor to conflicts. If we walk in thinking about the good times, we can create a self-fulfilling prophecy of happy remembrances and close bonds,” says Logan.
Eli Finkel, a professor of psychology at Northwestern University, suggests making a resolution like, “I am going to finish this family get-together being proud of my behaviour and knowing that I behaved like an adult.” More specific “if then” planning can also pay dividends, he says, e.g. “If my sister starts to brag about her kids, then I am going to agree with her and tell her what she wants to hear.” You could even prepare stock responses to questions, comments or issues you expect to arise.
3. Avoid the traps
Most people use arguments that they find convincing, but these aren’t necessarily the arguments that resonate with the person they are talking to. Personalise your approach: tell a story rather than offering an argument.
All too often, we bombard our ‘opponents’ with facts. However, our brains act to protect us against such ‘threats’ at an automatic, unconscious level. Research has indicated an overwhelming tendency to ignore evidence which conflicts with pre-existing views. In fact, when we feel that they are under attack, our views tend to become more deeply entrenched and increasingly extreme.
4. Hear them out
So how, exactly, do you talk them round? You don’t. You let them do it. Researchers have discovered that leading questions which encourage people to answer in a way which takes their pre-existing views to their logical extreme can actually cause these views to become less extreme, as their absurdity becomes apparent. This technique can even change voting behaviour.
The key is listening – not talking. Enter the discussion with an open mind (or at least act like it!), coming from a position of curiosity. You are a detective, and your job is to find out why a reasonable human being thinks the way they do. Ask them to explain exactly why they’re right – they may just realise that they’re not quite as confident in their beliefs as they think they are. Political professionals call it ‘deep canvassing’. “We ask open-ended questions and then we listen. And then we continue to ask open-ended questions based on what they just told us,” explains political organiser Dave Fleischer. Listen to what they are actually saying (not what you expect them say) and respond accordingly. Slapping them with facts and stats is counter-productive. Smile, nod and allow them to come to their own conclusions, in their own time.
When you feel frustrated, take a deep breath, count to 5 and remind yourself of the resolutions you made before you sat down…
5. End it well
Plan your get-out strategy. If you’re going round in circles, you may need to change tack. Susan Kuczmarski, author of Becoming a Happy Family, recommends identifying something that is important for the person and spending a little time on it. “A little compassionate asking, listening and reaching out within the family is sometimes all that’s really needed,” she says. Or you could just offer to whip up a batch of eggnog.