Meeting family can bring back a lot of old memories – sometimes painful ones – and it’s not unusual to find fully grown adults behaving like moody teenagers in such situations.
“Families are a system and we all play a role within that system from an early age,” says Sam. “As you become an adult, you grow out of that role. But, faced with family, you can very easily revert to behaviour that you thought you’d long left behind. The important thing is to prepare for this and be conscious of the likely sources of tension that can occur. If an argument seems imminent, ask yourself, ‘Who is being drawn into this row – me when I was 14, or me now, as an adult?’ By taking a bathroom break or going outside for some air, you can collect your thoughts and make sure that the adult you is in charge.”
Watch that wine glass
You might think a little Dutch courage can go a long way when you’re dealing with a tyrannical uncle or mortifying mother-in-law, but that’s a dangerous path to take. “Don’t forget that alcohol is hugely disinhibiting,” says Sam. “You have far less control over what you say, you become more emotionally sensitive and you can easily end up making bad choices. A few glasses is fine, but getting plastered and then deciding that it’s high time you told Aunt Linda what you really think about her new husband is not going to help your – or anyone else’s – enjoyment of the occasion.”
“This is a useful method for handling difficult situations with close family members,” says Sam. “The idea is very simple: the way we think about things determines how we respond to them, so you need to ‘catch’ your initial reaction, ‘check’ whether it’s the most helpful way of looking at the situation and, if not, ‘change’ it to a more helpful interpretation. For example, when your father asks how your job is going, you might assume that he’s criticising you for not getting on in your career. But if you take a deep breath and catch this thought early, you’ve got an opportunity to question whether this first interpretation is the most likely. Maybe when you think about it, you’ll realise that your father has recently retired and he’s missing the world of work. He just wants to hear about it again and he’s not having a pop at you in any way.
“This isn’t an easy skill and it takes practice,” adds Sam. “But it’s very effective and the great thing is, it puts the ball in your court. Rather than feeling as though other people are playing with your emotions, it’s a powerful way to take control and realise that you have a choice about how you react to any situation.”
Don’t expect miracles
If you’ve decided it’s time to make peace with a tricky relative, your Christmas get-together is the perfect time to send out that signal. But that may be the most you can achieve.
“Keep your expectations to a manageable level,” advises Sam. “A family reunion is not the right time to have a full and frank heart-to-heart with an estranged relative. All you can do is make a start, and non-verbal communication is vital here. Simply asking after someone’s health is a waste of time without positive body language to back it up. Your body is incredibly good at giving away your true feelings, regardless of what words are coming out of your mouth, so be sure that you make eye contact with the person you’re talking to, that your arms aren’t crossed and that you’re focused on them, not trying to catch someone else’s eye. Leave him or her in no doubt that you’re interested in what they have to say, and you’ll be building a bridge to a better relationship in future.”
Family members have a habit of knowing what buttons to press – and which awkward questions to ask – but don’t rise to it. Instead, keep smiling and give as good as you get with Sam Wood’s smart suggestions.
“So what made you choose to jack in your proper job?”
“You need to make sure you’re not going to play a tit-for-tat game with this relative,” warns Sam. So instead of focusing on material comparisons or getting competitive about company cars, focus on the positive impact of your new career choice, such as how much you love the autonomy of working from home now. “The tone of your voice is just as important as what you’re saying here. Show you’re comfortable with the choices you’ve made. It may well be that, underneath the bluster, your Uncle Jerry is actually rather envious of you.”
“Why haven’t you made an effort to keep in touch?”
“Make a pre-emptive strike here,” says Sam. “Before this question even has a chance to surface, approach the person you’ve been avoiding and be the first to make contact. Apologise for not being in touch straight away and show an interest in what they’ve been doing with themselves since you last met. The more attentive you are, the less likely they are to ask any awkward questions. Hard as it may be to make that first move, if you grit your teeth and spend 10 minutes with them right at the start of the event, it’ll save you any later embarrassment.”
“So, you’re still single then?”
“This is classic ‘catch, check and change’ territory,” says Sam. “Rather than jumping to the conclusion that Aunt Lil is being smug and judgemental about your relationship status, could it be that she’s looking to set you up with somebody? Choose to interpret her question in a positive way, then either make light of it by saying, ‘Yes, but you wouldn’t believe how many dates I’m getting,’ or thank her for her interest and move on.”
“How would you like to be a part of my new investment?”
“This is a question you absolutely don’t have to deal with in a party environment,” points out Sam. “If you’re not keen, you can always feign interest but state very clearly that you’ve had a few drinks already and you’d love to talk about this another time – perhaps via email – and swap addresses. This should satisfy even quite pushy people and now, of course, you are back in control and are able to enjoy the party.”