When Bad Relatives Happen to Good People

Provo, Utah, Nov 15, 2004 — Holiday gatherings are upon us. While many of us look forward to these get-togethers with giddy anticipation, a recent VitalSmarts survey* revealed four out of five people dread mixing with certain relatives who have disrupted past family gatherings.

Do these scenarios sound familiar: An in-law yells at your misbehaving child during dinner. Your sister leaves her five kids “for just a few minutes” and you’re stuck as babysitter for half the day. Your uncle, who has had one too many drinks, offers to take your kids for a ride in his new sports car. Your brother and family show up two hours late to the family dinner.

These holiday conflicts resonate with a vast majority of Americans – 83% of survey respondents report they have had holiday gatherings disrupted or even ruined by the actions of a bad- mannered family member – and 87% said the issue still isn’t fully resolved today.

“Half of us just badmouth these problem relatives or steer clear of them as much as possible,” says Joseph Grenny, coauthor of the New York Times bestseller Crucial Confrontations: Tools for Talking about Broken Promises, Violated Expectations and Bad Behavior. “Some blow up – telling their family members to shut up or attempting to control their behavior. A few even reported removing breakable objects from a room or hiding alcohol from the problem person! It’s doesn’t have to be that way.”

According to the survey, fewer than one in twenty people find a way to confront and resolve problems without creating a scene – and then get back to the spirit of the holidays.

“We’ve spent 10,000 hours watching people who skillfully confront those who behave badly,” says Grenny. “It is possible to confront tough situations and handle them to everyone’s satisfaction.”

Grenny offers a few tips for turning holiday havoc into enjoyable time spent with loved ones:

  • Work on me first. The biggest reason conversations end in a blow up is you don’t respect the other person. Those who are masters of crucial confrontations find a way to be civil and respectful of the other person – even when they’re behaving obnoxiously. To help soften your judgments, ask yourself, “Why would a reasonable, rational and decent person do what they’re doing?” For example, do you see your sister with the out of control kids as criminally irresponsible or as harried and in need of help? How you see her will determine how you treat her.
  • Make it safe. When confronting bad behavior, don’t start by diving into the issue. Create safety before you confront problems. Help the other person know you respect them and care about their interests. For example, when approaching Uncle Fester who’s coming down with the flu and kissing everyone he greets, begin with something like, “Uncle Fester, it wouldn’t be a holiday if I didn’t get one of your hugs. I’m glad you’re so affectionate and warm to all of us but . . . .”
  • Just the facts. When you dive into the issue, strip out accusatory, judgmental and inflammatory language (something that’s easier to do when you haven’t judged the person as a loser – see step one!). Start with facts. “Uncle Fester, I notice you are sick. And I noticed you’ve been dipping your chips in the bowl after biting half off . . . .”
  • Tentatively share concerns. Having laid out the facts, tell them why you’re concerned. But don’t do it as an accusation, share it as an opinion. “My concern is that with all of us in such close proximity, we’re all going to come down with the flu. I know you don’t want that either.”
  • Invite dialogue. After sharing your concern – encourage the other person to share theirs – even if they disagree with you. One of the best ways to persuade others is to listen to them, and they’ll be more inclined to listen to you. Hey, it’s the holidays – give a little. “So Uncle Fester, is there a way we can get your warmth and love without getting more than you mean to give? Or am I seeing this wrong?”

Grenny’s tips are based on his bestselling book Crucial Confrontations: Tools for Resolving Broken Promises, Violated Expectations, and Bad Behavior (McGraw-Hill, Sept 2004, $16.95).

*Survey results come from an unscientific poll of 270 people who responded to our October Web survey.


About VitalSmarts

Leaders in organizational performance and leadership, the founders of VitalSmarts have coauthored three books including two New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations (McGraw-Hill, 2002), and its newest title, Crucial Confrontations (McGraw-Hill, 2004). VitalSmarts has trained more than 300,000 people worldwide including leaders of 300 of the Fortune 500 companies in these and others skills. The company was founded in 1990 and is privately held.

Note to editors: Joseph Grenny and co-authors Ron McMillan, Al Switzler and Kerry Patterson are available for interviews. Interview footage is also available with first-person accounts of compelling and shocking examples of holiday disasters to help jump-start an interview. A graph showing the most commonly disrupted holiday gatherings is also available.

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