It feels very arrogant of me to offer tips on talking with others who typically annoy or frustrate you. How do I know what it’s like to talk with your sister-in-law who treats you like the dirt on her shoe? I’ve never sat next to your father when he is pontificating, with food in his mouth no less. True. But I have picked up a few clues along the way, and if they are helpful to you, maybe you will not be so anxious the next time a holiday rolls around.
With that caveat, I propose a few approaches.
Curiosity has become a very important word for me. Instead of entering a strained conversation with defenses and arguments at the ready, adopt the position of an interviewer. On the few occasions when I could muster enough objectivity to ask them, questions like these have turned the conversation in a more positive direction: This issue seems really important to you. What is at stake, do you think? When did you first realize that this mattered to you? Who or what helps you understand this issue better?
The ability to ask these kinds of questions requires a lot of self-awareness. When you get upset at someone’s remarks, what is happening in your body? Where do you get tense? If you are able, try to take a few slow, deep breaths to soften that part of your body. You don’t have to keep listening to the annoying babble; you can direct your attention to your own reaction and helping yourself stay calm. If you are able, you can ask yourself what it is about this exchange that makes you anxious. That will tell you something about yourself that you probably need to recognize.
One of the problems we have with family members is the memory of past difficulties. It is very hard to leave old hurts behind and forgive. (For you this might seem impossible; for example, I cannot imagine how excruciating it must be to sit in the presence of someone who has abused you. Secrets burn inside and make you feel desperate. For such things, a few tips cannot help you resolve the problems; you need to get help to deal with all of this pain.)
For those whose memories are not as damaging but are just irritating, you might take on a stance of compassion. Try to see the other person as not just a representative of a political party or religious group or race or economic status or sexual identity. Instead, think of him/her as a fellow human being with a story, a history of experiences you have not shared. If it helps, picture him/her as a child, vulnerable and playful. Or recall a memory of a touching moment, or when you shared a laugh together. Remember that the anger/frustration you feel will pass, and you will be able to love your family again if you choose.
Here’s a tricky one: let them have the last word. Sounds crazy, I know. But face it, you will never convince them of your position, or get them to see the holes in their own. You just won’t. So just sit there and let them expound without responding. Look at your watch and see how long it takes to say every single thing they want to say, with only an “interesting…” thrown in occasionally if you can’t remain silent. Imagine yourself in a lab coat testing your theories about opinion-sharing. If that fails and you actually get into an argument with them, letting them have the last word means they have to deal with the terrible things they said lingering in the air instead of justifying their bad behavior because of the way you reacted. It really does work, sometimes.
If nothing else, you could try humor. I love the ideas a counselor once shared with me. He suggests taking the ideas in the room to the extreme and poking fun at them. If you think Uncle Bill seems like a misogynist (and you are a woman), wear a fake moustache and ask them if it makes him feel more comfortable. Not a good idea? Hmm, then you might use the method from a recent episode of my new favorite sit-com, Speechless, “T-H-A, Thanksgiving.” The family was dreading the prospect of spending the day with Dad’s annoying brother, wife, and son (and “Joan,” not sure who she was). They decided to make a game of counting their guests’ annoying habits, awarding a prize for the most “humble brags,” catch-phrases, etc. Of course the story ended happily with some revelations about the family’s underlying burdens and everybody singing Kum-Ba-Yah, but you get the idea.
None of these works for you? Maybe you can take a cue from one of my favorite authors, Anne Lamott. Her simple creed: “Breathe. Pray. Be kind. Stop grabbing.” Or you can follow Sofi Papamarko’s handy tips for avoiding awkward moments. And then cut yourself some slack for being human, and move on. They’re family, and hopefully someday soon you will be able to laugh—or cry—with them again.