Do annoying relatives, and personality clashes put a damper on your annual family reunions? Here’s how to tackle difficult relatives with their awkward questions and take stress out of the holidays.
5 Common Holiday Questions.
Holiday meals with family, especially extended family you may not see very often, can be a delicate dance that involves remembering the last thing you heard about them, trying to find points of common interest between generations, and exploring new topics of conversation.
But sometimes, the same old questions start creeping in. You know those questions. They’re not necessarily trying to be rude, but the level of implied intimacy in the queries, or the slightly mocking or knowing tone in them, can have you privately reeling for hours afterward — especially if they’re coming not from your most beloved aunt, but from that slightly superior second cousin.
“Whether you are fielding a question from a nosy relative who is trying to bully you or someone asking in earnest, a light tone and gracious attitude go a long way,” said psychologist Gail Gross, a family and child development expert. “Using humor or sarcasm is a great way to lighten the mood, deflect the question, and close down the conversation, but you also want to reassert your boundaries and gently remind the other person that they have overstepped their boundaries by asking such an impolite question.”
Of course, sometimes holiday cocktails aren’t strong enough, or you want to shut down this person’s annoying annual question once and for all. That’s when confrontation comes in.
Below, we’ve asked Gross and three other psychologists who specialize in family relationships to suggest potential responses to five common holiday questions that could make you feel stuck, but shouldn’t. How you respond depends on whether you want to deflect questions, explore them or confront them head on.
“I like the three choices format because rather than feeling trapped or cornered by the invasive questions, it gives the person a chance to center and respond from a healthy place,” added psychologist Leonard Felder, author of the books When Difficult Relatives Happen To Good People and Fitting In Is Overrated: The Survival Guide For Anyone Who Has Ever Felt Like An Outsider.
The Tired Question: “Still single, huh?”
The expert: Psychologist Seth Meyers, author of the book Dr. Seth’s Love Prescription: Overcome Relationship Repetition Syndrome and Find the Love You Deserve.
“Most of my responses do two things: they attempt to answer the question, but they also attempt to point out the inappropriateness in asking the question in the first place,” Meyers explained.
Deflect: “Why? Are you interested in me?”
Confront: “When I am seeing someone I want to talk to you about, you will be the first to know. But I have to be honest and tell you that being asked about my dating life actually makes me more anxious. Can you appreciate that or do you want me to explain why that is?”
Explore: Tell the truth about your last break up, the interesting people you dated this year, or why you’re not interested in looking right now.
The Tired Question: “Have you gained some weight?”
The expert: Psychologist Leonard Felder
Deflect: “What a nice thing to say! You’re looking well yourself.”
Confront: Felder’s suggestion conveys how hurtful the question is, in a gentle way: “That’s a question I would not want to ask anyone I cared about, because it invariably causes someone to feel self-conscious or judged.”
Explore: If you feel up to it, share how tough it is to keep the weight off as you grow older and ask if they can relate or share any tips.
The Tired Question: “Oh, you’re still in that same old job?”
The Expert: Felder
Deflect: “You didn’t hear? I won the lottery and now live a life of leisure and travel. How’s it going over where you are?”
Confront: Felder advises people to state their position without shame and in fact point out the positives: “Yep, I’m in the same old job. In fact, one of my friends told me that I am possibly the only person in my generation who can hang in there and not have to apply for other jobs from the unattractive place of being unemployed. That’s a plus.”
Explore: Sure, they may be shooting the breeze by re-treading a topic they know irks you. But maybe they want to help; ask them if they have solid leads on new opportunities you could contact, or ideas on how to break out into the industry of you choice.
The Tired Question: “So, when are you two going to start having kids?”
The Expert: Psychologist Gail Gross
Deflect: “Nope, we’re still using condoms. How’s your sex life going?”
Confront: Gross advises people to gently reply, “That’s an interesting question. Sadly, I don’t have an answer for you,” and then leave the conversation to rest there. She also added that when someone is asking “busybody questions” like this, what they’re really doing is throwing you off balance. By responding in this way, Gross concludes, you are reasserting your boundary and reestablishing an equal playing field.
Explore: If you feel safe with this person, perhaps consider letting them in on your plans or struggles. Some who have experienced miscarriages may feel relief in sharing about it. Or if you are trying and it’s taking a while, share your frustration.
The Tired Question: “When can we expect wedding invitations from you two?”
The Expert: Meyers
Deflect: “We’re waiting for a reality show to pick up our story, so we may have to wait until pilot season.”
Confront: Meyers’ suggestion is short and to the point: This stuff is private, and there’s no news: “There are few things as private as setting an engagement. I will let you know as soon as there is any news to share.”
Explore: Let them know you’re enjoying your time together without making a more permanent commitment. Alternately, you may not actually believe in marriage as an institution — that’s ok too. Whatever feels most genuine, feel free to let your relatives know.
Hopefully you’ll be quick at the draw with a gentle and witty remark, as opposed to sputtering in the moment and thinking up amazing responses as you lay in bed hours later.
3 Strategies to Deal with Difficult Relatives.
1. Make sure the difficult person has a job to do, and then let them do it their own way.
Things were always better when my grandma had a job in the kitchen. For a lot of people, conflict is born from an unfulfilled desire to feel useful and to be a part of something larger than themselves. Start by giving the difficult person a way to focus on something besides themselves.
Tip: When you ask someone for his or her help, provide a rationale—any rationale—for the favor. One study showed that the word “because” tends to trigger automatic compliance. For instance, you might say brightly, “It would be great if you could peel the carrots, because we need the carrots peeled for dinner.” As bizarrely repetitive as that may sound, it should work better than, “Would you peel the carrots for me?”
2. Take care of your own needs first
This one is about taking precautions to keep yourself balanced and prevent your fight-or-flight response from kicking in. It’s harder to regulate your emotions when you’re tired, for example, so if you’re at a party with the difficult person and you start to feel spent, consider leaving early, lest you get sucked into a confrontation. You might risk insulting your host, but that’s generally better than ruining the party by making a scene.
Similarly, research shows that keeping your blood sugar stable will make you less aggressive if you get angry, so don’t skip a meal if you are headed into a difficult situation. If you need to leave the room and do some deep breathing, do it—even if the difficult person needs you to talk about politics right now. If we can stay calm, we are more likely to engage the brain circuits that make us better problem-solvers in challenging situations. (Also, we have more fun.)
Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson’s advice can help us take this even further:
Also see how taking care of yourself has good ripple effects for others. Deliberately do a small thing that feeds you—a little rest, some exercise, some time for yourself—and then notice how this affects your relationships. Notice how healthy boundaries in relationships helps prevent you from getting used up or angry and eventually needing to withdraw.
The exception: When our “need” is to be right. Often we feel a strong desire to show the difficult person the error in his or her ways. But this won’t make the situation easier, and it won’t make us feel better in the long run. Find a different (and more positive) way to feel powerful; for example, turn your attention to helping someone in need, perhaps even the difficult person him- or herself.
3. Give up on trying to fix him or her
This means accepting the difficult person for who he or she is, including the discomfort (or even pain) that they are creating.
Practicing this sort of acceptance is about dropping the fantasy of how we think things ought to be. You might have a fantasy of a sweet, close relationship with your daughter-in-law, for example, and so you feel angry and disappointed every time she does something that doesn’t live up to this fantasy.
But be aware that she likely feels your disappointment, and feels judged. She knows you are trying to change or “fix” her, and that doesn’t feel good—it hurts her, in fact, and hurting someone, however unintentionally, does not make her easier to deal with.
An alternate approach is one of empathy. Rather than judging what the person does or says, just try to listen and understand where he or she is coming from. This doesn’t mean that you need to agree with the person, just that you’re showing him or her a basic level of respect as a human being.Research suggests that engaging with a person this way—acknowledging his or her point of view without judging it—can make him or her feel more understood… and, as a result, less defensive or difficult.
Here’s how to practice acceptance and empathy: Take a deep breath. Look at the difficult person with kindness and compassion, and say to yourself, I see you, and I see that you are suffering. I accept that you are anxious and scared, even if I don’t understand why. I accept that you are making all of us anxious, too. I accept that your trouble has become my trouble for the time being. When we acknowledge and accept difficulty as something that just is, we let go of the resistance that creates stress and tension. There is a lot of truth to the adage that, “What we resists, persists.”
When this person is speaking, try not to interrupt with counter-arguments or even with attempts to try to get him or her to see things from a different, perhaps more positive point of view. Instead, try to paraphrase back to the person the points you think he or she is making, and acknowledge the emotions he or she seems to be expressing. For instance, if he seems ticked off about something, you might say, “It sounds like that really makes you angry.” In this way, you let them know that their experience matters.
We are all just looking for love and approval. This holiday season, the greatest gift we can give a difficult person—and ourselves—is to accept them fully, with love.