A beautiful table set for Christmas Dinner

What makes the holiday season so challenging?

One reason the holidays can be challenging is that for many, they are a HUGE departure from normal routines. There are large gatherings to prepare for, vacations to plan, planes to catch, gifts to decide upon, buy, wrap, give and receive, houses to decorate, children to care for, work to catch up on, traffic and crowds to navigate.

And don’t forget the many healthy and unhealthy relationships with living and departed loved ones rekindled during this special time.

What did I miss?

Oh yes, I almost left out that many of us cast ourselves into award-worthy roles: the perfect host, child, parent, partner, citizen….

From a cognitive perspective, the holidays are equivalent to Santa using his wish list as kindling, sending his elves, reindeer and Mrs. Claus on vacation, having the sleigh break down, and then trying to pull it all off without a hitch.

The result: Santa argues with your dad. He snaps at the children. He shouts obscenities at a mall Santa. He gives the everyone the wrong gift and when they let him know, he tells them how unappreciative they are.

In short, Santa finds himself in many more interpersonal conflicts than he’d like to.

When it’s all over he goes back to the North Pole to unpack his many mixed emotions, and then he starts writing his new year’s resolutions list.

How does this happen to us (and Santa)?

Harvard Negotiation Project cofounder and bestselling author William Ury has examined this question. Ury explains that when faced with interpersonal conflict, we rely on ineffective strategies: “we attack, we accommodate (in other words, give in), or we avoid altogether…. Or we use a combination of all three approaches.”

Normally, like in the workplace, the fact that these strategies are ineffective isn’t a problem – everyone knows and plays their part – e.g., boss and subordinate – and the show goes on. But during the holidays, as with solo Santa above, we are under more stress, and have less to lose. After all, we’re going back to the North Pole (until next year when we can make up for it all or threaten to cancel the holiday season altogether).

Would you like to keep yourself off of the naughty list this year? Me too. To that end I invite you to join me in sleighing through a short process framed by three key questions and one challenge (and informed by the wisdom of William Ury, mutual-gains negotiation pioneer, and Marshall Rosenberg, creator of Nonviolent Communication) that will increase the chances you bring holiday cheer to those around you.

First, ask yourself:

What is happening?

The ability to observe without evaluating is the highest form of intelligence.

Jiddu Krishnamurti

Language like this is so common you may not even think twice about using it:

“He cut me off.”

“You make me so mad sometimes.”

“She ruined my holiday.”

“You’re always such a….”

“She should stop complaining.”

But language like this is where interpersonal conflict starts.


Notice how full of judgment it is. Also notice how it implies that someone has done something to someone else.

And when we have judged someone to have done something (to us) worthy of punishment, what follows both logically and practically is that we punish them. We have also given power over our emotions to someone else.

And then we honk the horn at the ‘idiot’ who has cut us off. We scold the unappreciative child. We lash out at our critical parent. As many of us have seen it can get much worse.

This holiday season, instead of using judgmental language, do what William Ury, author of Getting to Yes with Yourself and Other Worthy Opponents calls Going to the balcony, or observing without judgment.

I’m a Star Trek fan so I think of it as channeling my inner Vulcan.

So, when the kids ‘complain’ that the Wi-Fi at grandma and grandpa’s house ‘sucks’, or that driver ‘cuts you off’, or your uncle ‘interrupts’ you, try describing the situation as Dr. Spock might:

“About 10 seconds after I began speaking, Uncle Kirk began speaking too and then we were both speaking at the same time.”

Then, once you and your inner Vulcan get comfy on the balcony, ask yourself the next question.

What, specifically, are you feeling?

Luckily, you’re not really a Vulcan, and have the benefit of experiencing a vast array of emotions.

So try to notice what you are feeling. Is it anger? Disappointment? Frustration? Irritation?

Many of us are unable to label our feelings because we haven’t had much practice, or have yet to learn how. According to Marc Brackett, director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and co-creator of the Mood Meter app, perceiving and labeling emotions is one of the five critical components of emotional intelligence, and doing so increases our chances of success across a wide range of personal and professional settings…. like the holiday season!

So here’s a practice for you as you prepare for the holidays:

When [something happens – neutral observation – channel inner Spock], I feel [emotion].

For example, “When I am driving and someone enters the lane I’m traveling in at a distance less than 5 meters from my car, I feel angry (frustrated, frightened, etc.).”

You can do this any time. Try starting small with the everyday occurrences that stir up unpleasant feelings in you. Just be careful. As Rosenberg points out, we often use “the word feel without actually expressing a feeling.” Think of sentences like “I feel like you’re trying to provoke me.” or “I feel I am being attacked.” or “I feel she is too aggressive.”

In paying attention to my own feelings I have noticed myself becoming more familiar with my emotions, and the situations that can bring them to the surface. What I appreciate about this is that without any effort I have become much less reactive. And, although it is highly illogical, I’ve had a lot of fun mentally emulating Dr. Spock.

So, once you’ve gained a bit of proficiency in these two skills, try moving on to the next question:

Which needs of yours are not being met?

You can’t stop the waves but you can learn to surf.

Jon Kabat Zinn

William Ury would like us to think of emotions as “the language that your needs use to communicate with you.” So, when you’re feeling frustration, for example, it could be a sign that your need to feel a sense of control or proficiency isn’t being met.

But think back to the way we commonly express ourselves in situations of interpersonal conflict. Everyday statements, like “He insulted me,” suggest that we are quite accustomed to holding others accountable for how we are feeling.

To build the competency of owning how you feel, here’s another ‘simple, but not easy’ challenge: practice expressing what you feel through Marshall Rosenberg’s template:

“I feel… because I….”

So, when Uncle Kirk begins speaking shortly after I have begun speaking, I would say or think:

“I feel agitated because I was enjoying having everyone’s attention.” (need for appreciation, acceptance, etc.)

Be careful! It’s very easy to fall back into old habits by handing responsibility for our feelings and needs over to others, so stay on the lookout for statements like “I feel upset because I feel attacked.”

I have to admit, I was initially uncomfortable with the idea of dwelling in the neighbourhood of feelings and needs because it wasn’t something I grew up doing, and I hadn’t received any guidance on how to do it. But when I thought about how many other needs and emotions I was comfortable thinking and talking about – like rest, exercise, water, inspiration, celebration, etc. – it became a lot easier to accept that these were just part of the gift that is me!

After you’ve had some time to build some skill in this area, move on to the final challenge:

Make a specific request to have your needs met.

Once we have observed non-judgmentally, identified what we are feeling, uncovered what need that feeling points to, Rosenberg would say it is time for “Requesting That Which Would Enrich Life”. In other words, we invite another to do something for us that would meet one of our needs.

There are three key elements to this practice.

First, use what Rosenberg calls “positive action language” and avoid “vague, abstract, or ambiguous phrasing.” In other words, telling someone (or yourself) what you’d like them to do, rather than what you would like them not to do is much more likely to lead to a positive outcome, and less likely to result in defensiveness. I recognize that doing this puts you at risk of rejection, but as we have seen defending what is ‘right’ (i.e. your judgments of yourself and others) often leads to more interpersonal conflict, and isn’t that just a different form of rejection? So why not ask? Rosenberg implores us to imagine ourselves in asking that our needs be met as Santa – have a jolly, cheerful disposition, one that reflects the belief that needs are precious, universal sources of joy and connection: “Ho ho ho!! Let me give you the gift of my needs with you!”

So with Uncle Kirk, I might say something like this “Uncle Kirk, I’m noticing that when I started speaking that you started speaking about 10 seconds after me. Well I wanted to share with you that I’m feeling frustrated because I was really enjoying being listened to. I would like to know if you would be willing to listen to me too?”

Nervous? Me too! I can think of many ways in which Uncle Kirk might attack me, defend himself, withdraw, or accommodate that would lead straight back to the North Pole and my new year’s resolutions list.

But don’t give up yet!

Try this instead: Ask Uncle Kirk to reflected back what he heard you say. “Uncle Kirk, could you share with me what you just heard me say?” In William Ury’s estimation doing this has the potential to “change the cycle of mutual rejection into a cycle of mutual respect.” Appreciating his willingness to do so, and then clarifying any misunderstanding and empathizing with him if he doesn’t want to share demonstrate your commitment to keeping the conversation out of the interpersonal conflict zones of attack, withdraw and accommodate. Here’s an example from Rosenberg:

“I’m grateful to you for telling me what you heard. I can see that I didn’t make myself as clear as I’d have liked, so let me try again.”

And then try again! You can do it.

The last step in this process is, as Rosenberg puts it, to “help others trust that we are requesting, not demanding, by indicating our desire for them to comply only if they can do so willingly.” Rosenberg also shares his method of testing whether we’re making a request or a demand: ask yourself what you would like the person’s reasons for doing what you’ve asked to be? For this to work you must be ready to accept a ‘no’ with empathy, instead of judgment.

So with Uncle Kirk, you can use this process to clarify his feelings and needs, and then respect his decision to do what would meet his needs.

Something like this might work:

“Uncle Kirk, am I getting this right? You’re feeling a bit overwhelmed and are needing a bit of support from all of us right now.”

Of course life can be very unpredictable and this process presents many challenges of its own. As a simplified blend of two approaches, there is much more depth and breadth than I have been able to cover, so please read the books! But, what I appreciate about this process is that steps 1-3 can be done at any time in any place, and by themselves could be life changing. How many of us wouldn’t benefit from gaining more clarity around our own feelings and needs, while at the same time increasing our ability to meet those needs ourselves.

How might you benefit if you tried this, this holiday season? What might the wins be?

Why not nourish the Vulcan within, and give yourself the gift of self-awareness, self-satisfaction, and maybe even connect with those you’ve previously found impossible to please.

And please let me know how it’s going!

Today’s Coach’s Questions Column was written by Tyler Wier, Certified Executive Coach and Padraig Associate.

Want some help improving your conversations at work? Contact Tyler at tyler.wier@padraig.ca or call Tyler’s direct line at (855) 818-0600 x 108

To hear Tyler talk about this post on CBC Morning Radio:
Dec 23 Information Radio Hour 1

Works Referenced:

Zinn, J. (1994). Wherever you go, there you are: Mindfulness meditation in everyday life. New York: Hyperion.

Rosenberg, M. (2003). Nonviolent communication a language of life (2nd ed.). Encinitas, CA: PuddleDancer Press.

Ury, W. (2015). Getting to yes with yourself: (and other worthy opponents) (First edition ed.). New York, NY: HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins.