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Kerrying On

Kerrying On: Surviving the Holidays

The following article was first published on November 24, 2004.

As we embark on two months of holiday gatherings, many of us are wondering what it’ll take to survive the unavoidable conflicts that lie ahead. Friends and loved ones will gather around a cornucopia of recently harvested food and, despite their best efforts to avoid all things hostile, controversial topics will weasel their way into the conversation.

Here’s your common holiday fare. Dad denounces his firstborn for canceling out his vote in the latest election. Granny asks her grandniece why she’s dressed like a hussy—Halloween has already passed. Mom plays the martyr as she tries to guilt-trip anyone who walks through the kitchen into working. She’s been serving up heaping spoonfuls of guilt along with the feast for years.

Eventually, two or more loved ones end up in a contentious debate. What starts out as a pleasant gathering with relatives wassailing each other left and right, transforms into a scene from A Jerry Springer Holiday. And as a result (to put a twist on Jim Croce’s famous tune), we think about the gatherings that lie ahead and we all come down with: “The steadily depressin’, low down mind messin’, celebratin’ holiday blues.”

In fact, 85 percent of the readers we recently polled stated that their family holiday gatherings include at least one heated argument where a valued relationship suffers. Rather than strengthening family bonds with each holiday gathering, one more link in the chain of family unity is further corroded. I speak from experience.

As a boy, I looked forward to each Thanksgiving and Christmas season more than any other time of year. It was a time when I got to sit next to my brother, dad, grandfather, and uncle and watch football. I don’t remember much about the games, but I can still smell the faint aroma of granddad’s nickel cigar and feel the afterglow of the camaraderie that enveloped each event. At dinner, the men would compete for who could load up their plate the highest while the women mockingly chided them for courting a coronary. Of course, nothing earth shaking happened at these gatherings. I guess if the world looked in on these events they would think they were sappy. I thought they were wonderful. We loved and respected each other and it showed.

So why was it that when my beloved family members met in full force for the last time (before kids married and moved away and grandparents passed on), I had to be such a moron? I was now an adult fresh out of grad school where I learned all about the importance of theoretical rigor and solid methodology. So when my cousin mentioned that she was “into” subliminal learning, I couldn’t help myself. Not only did she believe that if she played audio tapes while she slept her brain would magically take it all in (something that had been discredited years earlier), but she also believed that if she listened to her favorite guru yammer on about who knows what, she would be healed.

No sooner had she announced to the crowd that she was speeding down the subliminal highway to sound mental health than I laid into her arguments like a pit bull on a pork chop. Unfortunately, her claims couldn’t be disproved. Her arguments always ended with, “but it works for me.” She was a master at ducking scientific inquiry. For instance, years later she moved a chair in her living room to “alter the room’s karma,” and sure enough she was “back on the road to psychic balance”—or so she claimed.

Not being able to discredit my cousin’s arguments, I pointed out that the one-room-school over a garage where she currently studied family therapy wasn’t a school at all—it was a loosely-coupled gathering of flakes and charlatans. I offered up this heart-felt remark to no effect. In fact, my cousin merely smiled knowingly. I hated that smile. It hit me like a punch to the forehead.

So I punched back. Quickly I moved from lobbing cheap shots to launching a full-fledged personal attack. As I raised my voice, the spirit in the room changed from merriment to discord. My tone clanked against the pleasant background music and gentle chatter. All by myself I defiled the very spirit of the holidays. All by myself I upset the delicate balance of the successful family shindig. And hot dang, I was proud.

My cousin rose to the fight, matching insult with insult. Soon we were one more casualty in the book of failed holiday gatherings—all because of one thing. I just had to be right. I just had to set the record straight. I just had to attack the faulty details. And then for years to come, instead of apologizing for taking a sacred family tradition and sullying it with ill will, I acted as if what I had done was somehow noble.

That’s right. I was just doing my part to defend sound logic and thinking. Others could listen politely while my cousin raised idiocy to an art form, but I wouldn’t take it. I’d challenge her outlandish claims and if I hurt her feelings in the process or dealt the family gathering a death blow, that’s the price I’d pay for defending scientific rigor. All great things come at a price.

This was my story and I stuck to it for two decades.

So, here’s why 85 percent of the people we recently polled experience discord right along with their annual mug of eggnog. Every family gathering that has been brought to its knees by a heated and unsuccessful confrontation contains two or more participants who not only refuse to apologize for their role in the debacle, but who justify their mean-spirited and selfish attacks by explaining that they were merely defending a core value—and how wrong can that be?

Dad wants nothing more than to help sonny-boy come to his senses. That’s why he tries to set him straight. Granny wants her grandniece to quit sending the wrong message with her scandalous attire—so she won’t attract the wrong guys. Mom just wants some credit for all that she does for everyone—is that asking too much?

Let me break from the pack by making a pact. This year I’m not going to sacrifice family unity no matter what anyone says—or no matter how important the value I think I’m defending. Should a cousin announce that her health has greatly improved since she’s started eating a bushel of pine cones for breakfast while spinning hubcaps on her thumbs, I won’t laugh out loud. I’ll ask why and then actually listen. And if I still have a different view, I’ll express it in a pleasant and caring way.

Here’s my plan. I’m going to start every discussion by asking what I really want. Does everyone really have to believe what I believe? Do I really have to win each and every point?

One thing’s for sure—I don’t want to turn every gathering into an event where you can’t talk about anything substantive; I just want to talk about interesting and important issues in a way that doesn’t violate the spirit of the holidays. I want my own children to enjoy the sweet taste of healthy family discourse, good will, and genuine camaraderie. And to keep on track, I’ll continually ask myself: “What is it that I really want?” That’s the plan.

Who’s with me?

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Kerry Patterson

Cofounder of VitalSmarts, Kerry has coauthored four New York Times bestselling books as well as co-designed the company’s line of award-winning training programs. As author of our most popular column, Kerrying On, Kerry shares his vision, experience, and advice through fun and insightful stories from his past. read more

24 thoughts on “Kerrying On: Surviving the Holidays”

  1. As always, I’m with you Kerry. I’ve experienced quite similar Holiday conversations with my family with pretty much the same results. I’m committing to a season asking myself, “What is it I really want?”
    Thanks for your down-home style, and I’m wishing you and your family a wonderful and thoughtful Holiday Season.
    Regards,
    Kim

  2. Kerry,
    Your comments are always so wise and appreciated. I wholeheartedly agree. The holidays are about relationships and positive memories (as you also shared). Conversations need to be thought of within that context – valuing, building and sustaining relationships. There are times when standing up for and asserting one’s principles is important, but I suggest this is not one of those times. My mantra will be ‘let go and let others be’. Good conversation without confrontation. This way I look forward to every holiday gathering!

  3. I too, have made similar mistakes in handling family’s individuality and quirkiness at holiday gatherings. Although I am ashamed that I had such little insight, I am also grateful that my perspective has matured and changed and that I also can ask myself the same question of what it is I want. Mostly, I want my family to know that I cared about them more than I cared about making a point, supporting an argument or being right. I love your writing and perspective. I am gleening much from it as I try to mature and grow. Thanks for stewarding what you have learned and sharing with those of us who are learning.

  4. Thanks for the reminder. I found out a few years ago that it is useless to fight or argue with relatives you see only a few times a year. I have a sister-in-law who used to tell me how to raise my children when she had none of her own. So you could imagine those conversations. As I got older I learned to let it go. Thanks for letting me know that other families are as complex as mine. Happy Thanksgiving.

  5. I’m with you! Asking “What Do I Really Want” has been a useful reminder in many such situations. It always challenges my thinking about the importance of looking smart vs. actually being smart.

  6. This really hit the spot for me. Thank you. I am sure I will enjoy the holidays more now that I have adjusted my approach.

  7. I agree with your premise, Kerry, but have to question how you’ve used the example. Despite your self-deprecation, in the end it makes you look pretty good but it’s at the expense of your cousin and the old wound seems still fresh. I hope your example was more literary than literal and things didn’t really happen that way between two people still alive and in the same family. Either that, or I hope your cousin has gained a great sense of humour from listening to all those tapes over the years!

  8. My Al-Anon sponsor always asks me that question when I pose a relationship problem to him, “What do you want out of this?” I love the question would you rather be “right” or “liked”? I was that wise one that had to straighten things out for everyone! Now I am more like Thumper, if I can’t say something nice I don’t say anything at all!

  9. I believe it was when I reached the age where I knew everything–our family experienced a Thanksgiving very much like the one you describe. Unfortunately, that scene has replayed itself in several family gatherings, usually ending up with offense to someone who quickly found another place to be. Not long ago, someone challenged me with the question, “is it more important to be right, or in right relationship with this person?” Mr. Kerry, count me in, sir. And Happy Thanksgiving! I’m personally thankful this year for finding VitalSmarts!

  10. You hit the nail right on the head. So many people get completely wrapped up in being right that they totally forget about the big picture. It is so important to think about what you are saying/doing and how it affects what your main purpose or goal is. I wish more people realized this.

  11. Hi Kerry,

    Oh Great! Now I have to rethink my whole strategy to my conversation plans for tomorrow’s Thanksgiving dinner that my wife and I are hosting! :*)

    Instead, maybe as soon as everyone arrives, I think I’ll read this article followed by another that I saved from an e-mail chain letter titled “Gratitude”…

    Thanks again for your timely tip….(I’m sure the rest of my family will appreciate it as well).

  12. Count me in! This is the first Thanksgiving of just my husband, the four cats and myself in our home after decades of driving up and down Insterstate 5 for both holidays, which would make anyone’s eggnog curdle. My family is long gone; I just went along for the ride/food/burnout. It would take me two days to recover from the drive but I did no cooking, cleaning! I have finally reached the ephiphany that I listen more and ask less. I think my ego shrunk along with my ovaries. There is one thing I do want you to know that I am right about for sure and that is that you continue to be one of my favorite regular reads!! Happy Holidays, my NW friend!

  13. What an honest rendition of holiday life that sounds vaguely familiar. Thank you for giving clear, humorous and defined markings to the land mines of family gatherings. There is always alot of collatoral damage during holiday family gatherings, so I thank you for the gift of (smart) gab.

  14. How many years did it take for you to realize you were being a selfish boor? I wonder how many other areas of your life this same behavior has affected? I lost my father when I was 6 and my mother when I was 32. I value each and every moment that I get to spend with my grown kids and extended family. Some things are best learned the hard way.

  15. I’m with you. In the spirit of the Holidays and family peace
    I’m going to keep smiling unless it is illegal or immoral!!
    LOVE, JOY AND PEACE to you and yours.

  16. Kerry, Thank you once again for the great advice. The holidays should be a happy time and too often it’s a time of stress and fustration from differing family opinions.

    Happy Holidays to all!

  17. You have offered sage advise of which the world is in great need. So, I will join the pact and hope that … one by one, conversation by conversation, family by family, we can positively impact the world. Thank you for causing me to look at myself in the mirror, feel regret for past behavior, and look for a better way.

  18. Kerry, I have always loved reading your stories from your years of growing up and maturing. They always seem to hit home in the message you give and this one is no exception! Recently my boss began working with me on my need to be right all the time. I didn’t even realize that was what I’ve been doing for so many years in all parts of my life and it was a very difficult conversation and several weeks of soul searching. I have been blessed by a leader who cares enough to have that difficutl conversation with me. I’m not ‘cured’ yet, but try to work on this by being aware. I now ask myself the question you posed and I’m also learning to just be okay with someone elses story – without then offering my own opinion. Thank you for continuing to share and bare your own failures to your public in hopes that we can all learn and grow! Happy Holidays!

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