Handling High Conflict Situations During the Holidays

family May 13, 2020

© 2018 Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.

Holidays at any time of year can be a time of fun and visiting with family and friends. But it also can be a combustible mix of political opinions, food choices, parenting differences, and generational expectations and pressures. (“So, when are you going to…get a job, get married, have babies, etc.”) 

There’s also the chance that there will be a person high conflict tendencies coming. How will you handle this (these?) potential trouble-makers, who may thrive on stirring things up and disrupting your well-prepared family or friend event?  Here’s five simple tips:

1.   Preparation. Think seriously about who you want to invite or whose event you want to attend. Don’t let guilt be your guide. You may regret it afterwards. If you have a high-conflict relative or friend, try to remember the last event they attended. Did they try to steal the show? Did they ruin it? Or were they manageable with some structure involved (see items below). 

2.   Post a notice.It may help to post a small (or large) sign somewhere that says the following (or something like it): “Tis the holiday season. Let’s avoid hot topics that divide us and focus on discussions we can all enjoy. Thanks for making this a pleasant time for all.” This may remind people who otherwise might slip into arguing about diet, religious practices or politics. You can also simply point to the sign in a friendly way when someone brings up a controversial topic. That way you won’t seem to be offending them.

3.   Skip the arguments. People with high conflict tendencies don’t change their mind after hearing what you—or anyone—has to say. They enjoy the conflict and use it to justify all kinds of behavior: yelling, storming out, blabbing your carefully-kept secrets, refusing to eat your food and otherwise causing a scene. Their whole point is to be the center of attention, not to have a logical discussion. Change their thinking about diet, religion, politics? Forgeddaboutdit!  

4.   Find a sitter. Pick someone to “hang out” with the person with high conflict tendencies so that the person gets plenty of attention and doesn’t feel like they have to start a fight or engage in other nasty behavior just to get attention. Ideally, this would be someone who knows the person and has some experience with managing them in social situations. 

5.   Change the subject. This goes along with number two above. If someone starts getting into a dangerous topic or an argument, gently and firmly say: “That’s enough, Uncle Joe.” Often, that’s all it takes. Just to be safe, then change the subject: “Can someone pass me the salad dressing.” Too long of a pause after a firm statement leaves room for the person to argue about being shut off.

The goal is to have a good time with reasonable people. Providing a structure to deal with a person with high-conflict tendencies may help them have a good time, too. (They behave better with structure.) Even though holidays are a good time to share stories, recollections and useful information, being nice may not work with everyone. You may need to be assertive for the benefit of your own sanity and everyone else’s peace of mind.

And remember to have a good time yourself!

Bill Eddy is a lawyer, therapist, and mediator. He is the co-founder and Training Director of the High Conflict Institute, a training and consultation firm that trains professionals to deal with high-conflict people and situations. He is the author of several books  and methods  for handling high conflict personalities  and high conflict disputes with the most difficult people.


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