Here’s how to keep the peace with family at holiday get-togethers

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Thu, Dec 21, 2017 (2 a.m.)

Sitting down at a holiday dinner with family and relatives can present a daunting challenge for many in the Las Vegas Valley and across the country.

But thanks to recommendations from local experts, rare time spent with Uncle Larry and Aunt Sue doesn’t have to be dreadful.

Professor Katherine Hertlein of UNLV’s Couple and Family Therapy Program and CSN Professor Danielle Richards are two such professors whose fields of expertise cover interfamily relationships and keeping the peace. They said topics of U.S. politics, finances, religion and family gossip are among the least enjoyable for family members to discuss during holiday get-togethers.

“There’s a time and a place for political debates and hot topics within families, but the holidays might not be the best time,” said Richards, a four-year professor in CSN’s Department of Human Behavior. “While some families can handle arguing, most don’t manage it very well.”

Here are five holiday tips compiled by the Sun, based on insight from both Richards and Hertlein:

1. Be curious, yet realistic

Family members should listen to others who don’t share similar points of view and ask questions to keep conversations going. Such questions can help everyone find parallels among their beliefs, Hertlein said. At the same time, all people involved should set realistic expectations of conversations to avoid being disappointed with the viewpoints expressed by others.

2. Prepare in advance

Richards encourages holiday gatherers to know what to expect from certain family and relatives based on their previous experiences with those people, and to prepare accordingly. Preparation is important not only for relationships, but food and alcohol consumption, she said. Eating and drinking too much may cause added irritability, leading to arguments or thoughts of self-pity.

3. Be patient and recognize others’ points of view

When viewpoints of family members don’t match our own, it’s easy to respond emotionally rather than calmly, Hertlein said. Certain phrases, even as simple as “I need some time to think about that,” allow extra time for you to reflect and appropriately respond to something you might disagree with.

Patience also means asking open-ended questions, Richards said. For example, instead of asking someone “when are you going to get a real job?” or “when are you going to start a family?” she suggesting asking “what are you up to these days?”

4. Be able to walk away from the situation

If an unproductive conversation is causing more harm than good, physical distance is a reliable option, Hertlein said. Stepping away, even to another room, before it’s too late, can prevent negatively charged emotional reactions. The UNLV professor recommended developing an exit plan for ahead-of-time conversations that you anticipate could go wrong. Having such an exit plan provides a sense of control and reduces the likelihood that someone will get stuck in an overly unpleasant conversation, she said.

5. Be grateful and respect tradition

Following holiday traditions are just another way that families can provide structure and boost dopamine levels — which control happiness — Richards said, because of the familiarity that everyone involved has with the given tradition. That could be as simple as sharing a Christmas ham or lighting a Menorah together.

While some family members may have higher expectations for traditions, others may wish not to partake, Richards said. She encouraged all people involved to be flexible, and grateful.

“Whether it’s being happy you get to cook, or vice versa — happy that you don’t have to cook — there’s always something to be grateful for,” she said. “Focus on the good things and this year’s holiday time with families will be more enjoyable.”

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