Seek out allies. “Ahead of time, check in with the people you think are on your ‘team’ and let them know to help you out if certain topics come up,” says Kaitlin Doyle, a licensed marriage and family therapist at Capital Crescent Collective in Bethesda.
Practice responses. Don’t try to handle tough questions on the spot. “Write a script of things likely to happen and how you’re going to respond,” says Marjorie Kreppel, founder and owner of the Counseling Center Group in Bethesda. “You’re building muscle memory, so you’re much more likely to do it correctly when it occurs.”
Talk ahead of time. Still traumatized over the conversation with your aunt about your pregnancy journey last Christmas? Kreppel recommends reaching out to her in advance using the dialectical behavior therapy technique DEAR MAN (Describe, Express, Assert, Reinforce, Mindful, Appear, Negotiate). “Describe the situation that happened last time, such as, ‘You brought up some very personal questions about whether or not we’re going to get pregnant,’ ” Kreppel says. “Then express how that made you feel, assert what you want, and then reinforce how this will be better for your relationship.”
Draw lines in the sand. “People think boundaries have to be complicated, requiring a lot of extra explanation,” Doyle says. “But something as simple as gently, warmly asking, ‘Please do not ask me about this,’ is fine.”
Choose safe conversation topics. Rather than letting discussions veer into third-rail topics, like the upcoming presidential race, Lizzie Post advises starting convos around small talk topics: the meal, the weather, what you just binged on Netflix. “No, this is not riveting conversation,” says Post, the co-author of Emily Post’s Etiquette: The Centennial Edition and co-president of the Emily Post Institute, “but these topics don’t usually bring in conflict, ideology or identity.”
Ask questions. Find out what’s been going on with your fellow guests over the past year: their job, their friends, their vacations, their oddball collection of model train memorabilia. “That puts the attention on the other person, which is going to be very protective for you,” Kreppel says.
Divert the dialogue. Suddenly, you find yourself sandwiched between invasive queries about your dating life from an old family friend and your out-of-town cousin. Post recommends simply switching the topic—and being blunt about it. “Tell them, ‘I would love to talk about anything but that,’ ” she says. “Then pivot by asking them about something else they’re going to be able to discuss.”
Avoid self-medicating. Taking refuge in a bottle of whiskey or stepping outside for a few tokes might make you momentarily feel better, but they aren’t going to make your holiday any brighter. In fact, it might get a whole lot darker. “They may make people have a shorter fuse and be less inhibited, so they’re more likely to fly off the handle,” Doyle says. “No matter what, they’re a short-term fix, a Band-Aid on a broken arm.”
Just breathe. Getting riled up about a long-running family feud? Kreppel advises excusing yourself to do breathing exercises. By inhaling for four seconds and exhaling for eight seconds, you will activate your parasympathetic nervous system, which will help you calm yourself down.
This story appears in the November/December issue of Bethesda Magazine.