Revisiting Holiday Communication Advice

I wrote this a few years back.  Thought it might be good advice to share again:

So you’re heading out to see the relatives? Or, are they coming to you? Stress is inevitable, even the stress of managing your stress. And that’s a threat to your health and theirs.

Studying communication provides insights into how we and our loved ones and friends interact. And a large percentage of what we say and do around each other is patterned — Unwanted Repetitive Episodes (URPSpronounced urps). These happen fast — before our reasoning has a chance to intercept.

None of us is an expert on getting through holidays without URPS, but there are some helpful, easy to apply solutions. Thought I’d share a few that my students have enjoyed hearing right before the holidays.

First: Know your URPS. Before you set foot into the home of a family/friend or they into yours, recall what usually happens and what precedes it. Be unbiased. Consider what you contribute. Each of us is at least 75 percent responsible for what other people say and do to us. In other words, if we could just identify what we say that sends interactions off in undesirable directions, we’d be a good way toward redirecting them. And that’s a powerful skill.

Second: Redirecting requires recognizing choice points. These are junctures in conversation where you can choose to do the unexpected. Let’s say Uncle Harry sets you off with his pompous know-it-all attitude to which you usually respond with an insult or rolling of your eyes. Harry fires back and family members join in to defend, leading to, well, just what everyone expected in the first place.

The world would be a better place if the more constructive among us knew about URPS and choice points. Without this knowledge, we can’t negotiate effectively. We’re victims of habit.

Take this simple example:

A son comes home from college from the holidays. He and his father decide to wash the car. This follows:

Father: You’re looking good.
Son: Thanks, Dad.
Father: But when are you going cut your hair?
Son: (sighs and smirks) We’re not going there again, are we?
Father: Don’t talk to me like that.
Son: It’s always the same.
Father: Because you don’t even have the respect to come here looking like a human being.
Son: If that’s the way it’s going to be, I’m out of here.
Father: Fine. That’s just fine.

There are choice points all over this URP. The son might have replied with, “I meant to do that before arriving” (if it’s true). Sorry about that,” “It’s not my best look. I know. You’re right.” or “When you get yours cut, I’ll go with you.” The father could have avoided the topic altogether, an early choice point, or replied to the son’s reply with, “I suppose you’re right. We do always go there. Must be a habit,” or “Listen, I don’t mean to bug you, even though I am bugging you. Let’s talk about something else. Or, “I suppose you are 21 now.” After all, is this hair discussion really worth ruining the holidays? Is any URP worth ruining the holidays?

Every utterance expands or limits the options of the other person — as in chess. That’s where the 75 percent responsible comes in. If we go too far from what our co-urpers expect, they distrust the response. But what if we just tweak? Someone makes an errant remark, and this time you don’t mindlessly respond verbally or nonverbally. You could try what we in communication call a one-across move. Instead of one-upping or one-downing by agreeing when you don’t, just say, “Hmmm,” “Hadn’t thought of it that way,” or look pensive. Buy yourself time to think. One-across moves are especially handy at the holidays but it wouldn’t hurt to try them at work either.

URPS are powerful things. People are vested in them. Some don’t even know how to relate to others unless they’re in an URP. In such cases, even if you tweak, the person may try to get back into the URP because that’s the only way he or she knows how to relate to you. So one tweak may not be enough. You may have to hang in there and do two or three unexpected or one-across responses. You might have to tell him or her about URPS and formulate a contract to get through this holiday without them.

Third: When URPS are too entrenched to change, there’s always taking a breather by disappearing to another room to play music, meditate, or read. Take a walk. These are nonverbal one-across moves. A good tweak might come to you. Maybe this holiday season will be an URPless one!

Happy Holidays!

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