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Tips for Difficult Conversations About Holiday Plans

Published in Behavioral Health Services, For the Health of It Author: Barbara Skodje Mack,LMFT,LPCC,MS

After everything 2020 has thrown at us, many people might be looking forward to the holidays. It is usually a time spent with family and friends. But this year, it will probably look a little different.

Instead of awkward conversations around the dinner table, you might find yourself having an uncomfortable conversation about why you will not celebrate the holidays in person this year. The Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) says large, extended family gatherings or get-togethers with multiple families is a recipe for COVID-19 spread. Even small gatherings, with more than 10 people, need to be thought through carefully.

So, if you are confident about your decision to stay home this year, be honest when speaking to your family and friends. Don’t make up excuses. Rachel Miller, who writes a column about how to handle difficult conversations, shared some ideas on how to put your thoughts into words.

  • “I’ve read way too many stories about small family gatherings ending in tragedy, and I’m just not willing to take that risk.”
  • “I’ve barely left my home for the past six months. As much as I love our typical Thanksgiving weekend, I’m just not comfortable traveling, interacting with strangers or combining households during this pandemic.”
  • “I love you so much, and I couldn’t live with myself if I got you sick.”
  • “I know that I won’t be able to fully relax and enjoy myself while I’m there, and I don’t want our time together to be burdened by that.”
  • “I would rather stay home this year to ensure that we’re all around and healthy next year.”

Don’t wait until the last minute to have these tough conversations. You don’t want to assume your family knows how you feel, and they might be preparing for a traditional get-together when that isn't your plan. Keep it simple, clear and specific when communicating about your perceived risks and the precautions you are committed to taking.

If your family disagrees with your decision, you don't need to go on the defense. It is a difficult time for many and letting them know you are listening and that you value your relationship with them can help.

Remember: you are not alone. These conversations are happening all over the nation and the world. If you are not sure how to handle it, talk to someone you trust and see how they would handle it. Here are a few tips for how to navigate these tricky conversations.

Communication tips for talking to loved ones

  1. Keep the heart in the conversation. Highlight that your decision is out of care about the health and safety of your loved ones and yourself. We may end up suffering more by wishing and waiting for things to change, rather than finding joy in the circumstance we are in and accepting things as they are.
  2. Find common ground. Agree with them on shared values and intentions. Instead of telling them what to do, highlight the shared priorities. For example, “I know we all would like to get together for the holidays, but I am not comfortable getting together this year because of our grandmother’s high-risk health condition.”
  3. Prepare your thoughts and use I-statements. When there is something you need to say, but you are not quite sure how to say it, try writing out your thoughts and practicing them with a friend or family member. Express how you feel or what you want instead of blaming or labeling the other person. For example, use phrases like “I feel…and I would like…” or “I’ve decided to…” or “I appreciate… .”
  4. Approach with empathy. If you are just as disappointed about social distancing as they are, tell them that. It is hard on all of us, but each may struggle with different aspects of it. Validate the feelings but stick to the facts and avoid generalities. Instead of saying “You never spend time with me anymore”, try saying “In these past few months, we’ve only seen each other twice and that has been really disappointing.”
  5. Be a broken record. This approach involves repeating your stated boundary over and over, in a calm, confident voice. No need to negotiate, overly explain, or rationalize — just set your boundary and repeat. Here are a few example statements of how to close the conversation: “I feel like you’re really angry right now and we could end up hurting each other with our words. Let’s talk about this later, when we’re calmer” or “I see we have different opinions. I value our relationship, and we may have to disagree on this.”
  6. Don’t forget to breathe. If you are easily overwhelmed in the moment and agree to all kinds of things because you have difficulty saying no, a simple, “Let me think about it/check on it and I’ll get back to you,” gives you the breathing room you need to come up with an appropriate, assertive response.
  7. Try new traditions. Instead of spending energy fighting the inevitable situation, channel your energy into figuring out a new tradition. Take what you value most about the holidays and build something new around it. Be creative and think outside the box or change things up completely. You may not be able to be in person sharing a meal but what if you could cook together and eat together in a virtual gathering. It may not be the same but challenge yourself to find the joy in it.