Use those Conflict Resolution skills on holidays – Mary T. O’Sullivan

by Mary T. O’Sullivan, MSOL, business leadership contributor

“Conflict cannot continue without your participation” – Wayne Dyer

The holidays – like this one, July 4th – can be a time of family conflict. We often try to ignore it, but sometimes, something must be said.

Odds are, at a 3 or 4 Independence Day holiday, you’ll be in a group of family – those who know you the closest and the longest. Add a little alcohol to the mix, and conversations and story-telling can get the best group of loving people in trouble with each other.

Think about that Thanksgiving dinner. Not so different. Conflicts can be brewing, with all the generations and siblings under the same tent or around the same picnic table. Sometimes parents are a source of conflict, telling stories about people nobody knows, or people you haven’t seen in years. The stories can also tend to center around issues of the cardinal forbidden subjects of social interchange, religion – and today more than ever, politics. Maybe parents have some acquaintances that may be of a different faith or political persuasion. Intergenerational groups can reveal big religious and political differences. Mix in a few PhDs with a few students or general workers, and you have an environment set for conflict.

This conversation may go on in detail. Now, when kids are growing up, of course they are always present, and maybe a friend or two also join the family at the table.  So, there could be a room full of teenagers or 20-somethings, just about turning to stone listening to the parents’ stories and conversation. Even if it’s not about volatile topics, it’s interesting and surprising how parents could dominate the conversations, and never once asked any of the kids, a husband or wife, or sisters, cousins, and other relatives etc., how, or what they were up to. When parents like this take a breath, it may be good to butt in with a question, such as “Dad, wouldn’t you like to know how your grandson is doing?” Maybe the parent would make a face and make some comments sounding like wise cracks. Sometimes, parents can never relent on their discussions which the rest of family may consider completely inappropriate for a holiday group gathering. This may be their soap box, their opportunity to give their views on the state of the world, and subtly hint around at the short comings of others by comparing them to their other friends.

Finally, people may reach their limit and can’t take it anymore. As the conversation drones on, a good diversionary tactic is to look up from your plate, look everyone in the eye and with a smile, blurt out, an inane comment like “So, how about them Bears!” This diversion gives everyone at the table comic relief, and they can finally laugh out loud, burning off some nervous energy. Some parents, of course, are clueless as to the meaning of such a remark (I think it’s from Planes, Trains, and Automobiles). But it gets the discussion away from a parent’s meandering stream of consciousness blather to a topic kids can relate to. On the 4th, fireworks and what’s on the grill is on everyone’s mind.

Parents may not appreciate such distracting comments and the remarks may cause the relationship to cool around holiday get-togethers. If they want, parents often may make other plans. They may claim there are too many rules when you all gather. But who could sacrifice precious time with the rest of the family to force everyone into trying to figure out what the point is in these various discussions? The holidays are a time for joy and family love, and fireworks and cookout food, not a time to embark upon discussions of the topical issues of the day, or how wonderful some obscure acquaintances are. Often the 4th is the big one until the fall, so try to salvage these intergenerational times.

You may never know what you could have done differently in such a situation. It’s all about making some judgment calls. It’s so busy with activities like food, decorations and celebration activities that the last thing on your mind may be controlling the conversation. You may have to think on your feet for the sanity of the family and the enjoyment of the rest of the day. You may feel bad that parents feel “rules” are being imposed on them, but sometimes, establishing rules for the enjoyment of others is necessary.

The lesson learned is that sometimes to resolve conflict, someone must step up and set the ground rules. If people can’t abide by ground rules for the sake of everyone’s comfort level, they can choose not to play the game. Look around, there are a lot of casual articles written about getting along with each other during this volatile time in the world – family, or friends. Email the article ahead of time to a few key “leaders” in the group of people you’ll be with – and enlist their help in making “the time” enjoyable. It’ll be a Happ-ier 4th for all!

“Whenever you’re in conflict with someone, there is one factor that can make the difference between damaging your relationship and deepening it. That factor is attitude.” – William James


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Mary T. O’Sullivan, Master of Science, Organizational Leadership, International Coaching Federation Professional Certified Coach, Society of Human Resource Management, “Senior Certified Professional. Graduate Certificate in Executive and Professional Career Coaching, University of Texas at Dallas.

Member, Beta Gamma Sigma, the International Honor Society.

Advanced Studies in Education from Montclair University, SUNY Oswego and Syracuse University.

Mary is also a certified Six Sigma Specialist, Contract Specialist, IPT Leader and holds a Certificate in Essentials of Human Resource Management from SHRM.

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