From minor dustups about who’s got dishwashing duty to deeply held dysfunctional patterns that erupt over hors d’oeuvres, families everywhere will navigate holiday landmines this holiday season. But how can you avoid being drawn into those unpleasant family conflicts? In this article, Laurie Davies shares 15 phrases to help you defuse any potential family drama and lead with love this holiday season.
The holidays are coming, and that has many of us longing for the ‘old days’—you know, the days of COVID, quarantines, and social distancing.
The pandemic, as restricting as it was, gave some of us breathing room away from family fireworks at the holidays. But now we’re in post-pandemic life. (Maybe, kind of, we hope?) And that may mean reengaging in holiday get-togethers.
How we do that is up to us.
15 PHRASES TO DEFUSE FAMILY CONFLICTS
From minor dustups about who’s got dishwashing duty to deeply held dysfunctional patterns that erupt over hors d’oeuvres, families everywhere will navigate holiday landmines this season. Add travel stress, sleep deprivation, altered routines, heightened expectations, lots of sweets—and, just for fun, throw in an election year—and even the closest-knit families may feel frayed.
If your family get-togethers spiral downward in a hurry, it’s smart to come prepared. Often a simple phrase—and a strong commitment to it—can dial down the decibels. This doesn’t mean your Uncle Harry won’t drink too much or your mom won’t recite the litany of your life screw-ups while she takes your coat, but instead of leaving frustrated that you lost your cool (again), wouldn’t it be a sacrifice of praise to lead with love and leave knowing you didn’t add fuel to the fire?
Having a few of these phrases in your back pocket may help. (If you literally want these 15 phrases—plus five additional phrases—in your back pocket, visit lauriedavies.life for a printable pdf.)
1. “To clarify, I hear you saying …”
This statement, ideally a paraphrase of what the other person said, shows you are listening with an intent to understand. Sometimes conversations fly off the rails simply because one party feels misunderstood. (Note: If a family member seems committed to misunderstanding you or baiting you into an argument, skip quickly to number 2.)
2. “Thank you for telling me that.”
This statement doesn’t agree with the person or even invite more dialogue. In fact, a statement like this can help end a conversation that’s going nowhere, especially if it’s said kindly but firmly. Think period, not comma. If dialogue persists, a direct statement such as, “Let’s take a break from this conversation,” may help you find the off-ramp.
3. “I hear that’s important to you.”
If you don’t need a conversation-stopper and want to tread a little further into the water, this statement shows your family member that you’re listening and acknowledging that what they’re expressing matters to them. You’re not agreeing, apologizing, or pouting. You’re simply saying you hear them.
4. “I can see why you would feel that way.”
Deep breath, deep breath, deep breath. Even if you disagree with a sentiment down in your bones, and even if they are espousing an opinion—maybe even about you—that’s tough to swallow, you can still validate their feelings. This is a way of being generous. It’s a way of seeking to understand rather than seeking to be understood. And it may suck radioactivity right out of the conversation.
5. “It’s okay for us to want different things.”
This phrase nudges gently into the boundaries space. It can be disarming for a family member who is used to getting their way. For example, if your dad insists the family will open presents on Christmas Eve, but you want to maintain a Christmas-morning tradition you’ve started with your kids, this phrase helps establish that each preference is okay. From there, you can do your own thing, you can compromise by doing a little bit of both, or one of you can yield. Ideally the latter would be done in a spirit of mutual respect rather than control and fear.
6. “We’re on the same side.”
If conflict threatens to divide you into camps or create a power struggle, remind your family member that you are on “Team Family Member.” In humility, remind them that you’re willing to attack the problem, but you’re unwilling to attack the person. Sometimes just reminding our loved ones that we are for them, not against them, can de-escalate a conversation.
7. “Could we pray together about this?”
If your family member is open to praying, a heart softening could happen. It’s really hard to stay mad at someone who’s praying for you. (And it’s really hard to stay mad at someone you’re praying for.) Philippians 4:6-7 tells us that when we make our requests known to God, His very peace will guard our minds. And Luke 18:1 reminds us to pray and not lose heart. Those two really are connected.
8. “I’m always trying to get better.”
If a family member pokes at one of your flaws—even if it hurts and it was a low blow—this very gracious response acknowledges you’re working on yourself, without setting up a wall (or Fort Knox) for a defense. It’s a way of moving into the comment rather than putting up an immediate defensive response around it.
9. “ I agree with you on that.”
On the 1970s and 80s sitcom “Happy Days,” The Fonz would stand in front of the mirror in the bathroom, tyring to practice the words, “I’m sorry.” He could never get them out of his mouth. He just couldn’t say the words. “I agree with you,” may not taste like sugar plum candy either, but as a companion to #8, this phrase may shut down a conflict. You may lose the battle, but your broader family—through your de-escalation of a conflict—may win the ‘war’.
10. “I’ll be so grateful if you assume the best in me. I’ll do the same for you!”
Delivered with the right tone (think gentle, not sarcastic), this phrase invites a relational spirit of “let’s do this for each other.” Often, we assume the worst in family because we know their flaws and behavioral patterns—and they know ours. But what if we have grown? What if they have, too? Proverbs 25:8 warns us not to bring a matter hastily to court because we may be put to shame. The same principle applies in the ‘courtroom’ of our families.
11. “This sounds like something we could work on together.”
What an inviting way to acknowledge the presence of a problem and shared responsibility for it. Again, vocal tone and eye contact is everything. If sincere, these words could build a bridge over a chasm. (If denial, gaslighting, or a power struggle is in full effect, this phrase likely won’t work. But for a run-of-the-mill argument that has two willing problem-solvers, it has a fighting chance.)
12. “I’m going to examine the role I played in this. Thanks for giving me time to think.”
If you want to pull the spark plug out of someone’s attack, let them know your pointer finger is pointed at you, not them. Not only is this a valuable and legitimate pursuit of Scriptures such as Psalm 139:24 and Matthew 5, but it also may disarm the conflict.
13. “What would you like from me on this?”
Sometimes family members just want you to admit something. They want you to see that you hurt them. Or they want you to acknowledge that they did the best they could. They want you to admit that you looked better as a brunette than as a blonde. This question is a gracious way of helping them pinpoint a specific request.
14. “I love you too much to do this here and now.”
This phrase both expresses care and honors the setting. It’s the holidays. You’re in someone’s home, maybe yours. Now is not the time. A nice follow-up might be to express a willingness to get together in person (maybe in a neutral setting like a café) or on the phone to discuss the matters between you.
15. “Please (insert direct statement here).”
Setting up firm boundaries around bad behavior is sometimes the necessary course. For example, “Please be kind to my husband. I love him and I won’t listen to you badmouth him,” shows the family that open season on your spouse is over. “Please don’t talk negatively about my daughter’s weight,” is a protective boundary, and one that she needs you to establish.
If these boundaries are ignored, it’s okay to enforce a consequence—perhaps even returning to the peace and quiet of your home (or politely asking your houseguests to leave). You may be accused of ruining Christmas, but you’re just not that powerful. Herod tried to ruin Christmas once, and Jesus still grew up and saved the world.
LEADING WITH LOVE
Of course, if none of these soundbites feel right in the moment, another option is available to you. Just say nothing. If you feel a temptation to lash out, it’s actually wise to remain silent. Job’s friends got so very many things wrong, but one thing they did right was silence. For the first seven days, they said nothing to their hurting friend.
If you can pull it off without sarcasm or an undercut, humor doesn’t hurt either. Breaking the tension with a well-timed joke or laugh can release the pressure in the room.
Of course, relationships, feelings, reactions, and words are dynamic. You may have to adapt these phrases to make them work for you. It’s also important to acknowledge that every single one of these phrases may leave you feeling like you’re holding the short end of the stick, and that, friend, is no fun. But as my friend Janet McHenry once said, while looking me squarely in the eyes: “Maybe it’s time to set the stick down.”
Author Bob Goff puts it this way: “Love more, not less. Will you take a hit? Of course you will. Do it anyway.”
Let Love Remain
A final word of encouragement for the ones who have been manipulated, rejected, or cut down by a lifetime of criticism: It’s possible that not a single sound bite on this list will work for you. Perhaps your good intentions have backfired before or your heart just ends up broken after every family encounter. There’s a unique pain in that. The Lord sees you and He has a salve for you: “He heals the brokenhearted and binds up [your] wounds” (Psalm 147:3). If radioactive relationships have created fear, distrust, and chaos, it’s wise to evaluate how much family contact you’ll have this holiday season. Love can remain in your heart even if you can’t remain in the room.
Cover It In Prayer
And, of course, the most powerful strategy this holiday season is to pray. Where there has been enmity, ask Jesus to give you empathy. Where there’s a power struggle, ask for His power alone. Ask the Lord to activate self-control in you. Memorize Psalm 58:7 which says: “When they draw the bow, let their arrows fall short.” Do you see the freedom in that? Rather than attempting to control anyone else from trying to hurt him, the psalmist simply prayed that their arrows—which he anticipated would come—would clang to the ground.
That’s true, by the way, even if they push you away.
This is, after all, what God has done for us.
If you’ve learned the art of the de-escalating phrase, what has worked for you? Please share a phrase that you have found helpful in dialing down family conflicts. Your words may be just the thing someone else needs.
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