Crucial Skills®

A Blog by Crucial Learning

Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

Weathering Strained Holiday Relationships

The following article was first published December 1, 2015.

Dear Emily,

Every year I have the same argument with my mother and husband. Every year, my mother demands that we spend Christmas Day at her house while my husband, and father of our two children, wants to stay home. We usually go to her house. This year is no exception but we have an addition to our household. My husband’s mother has moved in with us and it will be her first Christmas with her grandchildren. Her health is failing and travel is extremely difficult for her. My mother, who lives two miles from me, knows this. After the usual badgering, I finally gathered the courage to say that we would not leave his mother alone at our house on Christmas Day. I offered to have the entire family come to our house instead, either to spend time with her on Christmas Eve, or on Christmas Day. My mother will not accept this and has decided to throw a temper tantrum. So, we are staying home.

My question is, how do I permanently stop this argument? It has made me hate Christmas.

The Grinch

Dear Grinch,

Ah, the holidays. A season fraught with expectation, disappointment, and heartache. I vote we cancel Christmas this year! Who’s with me?

Okay, okay, I don’t actually want to cancel Christmas. I love Christmas. But reading your question did touch a place in my heart that harbors a bit of dread for the stressful holiday season and brings to mind the plaintive cry, “Why can’t we all just get along?” We all know how stressful the holiday season can be. However, your situation is not really about Christmas at all, is it? It is not even about a conversation. Your challenge is the health and well-being of a critical relationship.

The answer to the question you ask is straightforward. How do you permanently stop this argument? Stop talking to your mother. Ouch, right? But that would stop the argument. Don’t worry though, this column doesn’t end here. Instead, I am going to take a guess that your question is something more than how do I permanently stop this argument. I think your question may in fact be “How do I stop this argument in such a way that honors both my mother and me and also strengthens our relationship?” Are you starting to see how this isn’t about Christmas at all?

When you reframe the question, you start to get at the heart of what you really, really want. Yes, right now what you really, really want is for your mother to: 1) grow up and be an adult, 2) recognize that she is acting selfishly, 3) understand that you need to meet the needs of your mother-in-law and that this relationship is also important to you, and finally, 4) not make such a big deal about something that doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. Am I getting this right?

In Crucial Conversations, we teach people to prepare for a conversation by Starting with Heart. By getting really, really clear on what the intent is. We do this by asking ourselves, “What do I really want? For myself? For the other person? For the relationship?” The challenge with this question is most of the time our first answer is the wrong answer. We are quick to jump in with what we really want right now. It may be to win, to save face, to be right, to have our mother tell us we are right and of course we can have Christmas dinner at our house. But if you stop there, you will likely miss what it is you really want, because after all, this isn’t about Christmas.

Over the years, I have trained myself to ask the question four or five times before I settle into an answer. The internal dialogue might go something like this:

Me: “Okay, what do I really want here?”
Mini Me: “I want this argument to stop. I want to enjoy the holiday and I want my mom to recognize that it is not just about her. I am trying to balance a lot of demands.”
Me: “And why do you want that? Why is that important to you?”
Mini Me: “Because I need my mom to recognize that I have a family too and it can’t just be about her tradition and her view of what should happen.”
Me: “And why can’t it?”
Mini Me: “Because I am an adult and a mother too. I need my mom to see me as such so that we can have a meaningful relationship. I love her and I want to meet her needs. I also want her to recognize that I have grown up and that families change over time. I want to relate to her as an adult, not just as her child.”

Asking yourself, “What do I really want?” is a great start but it may not be enough. You may need to ask yourself several times to get clear on what you want and what the core issue is for you.

Related to starting with heart and asking what we really want, for ourselves, for the other person, and for the relationship, is the concept of Mutual Purpose. Again, in Crucial Conversations, we teach creating Mutual Purpose as a skill to increase the level of psychological safety within the dialogue so you can discuss any content. And, because all relationships at their heart are built by a series of conversations over time, sometimes Mutual Purpose becomes much more than a safety skill—it becomes the entire dialogue.

Creating Mutual Purpose starts by understanding what purpose we are bringing to the dialogue. In this case, we have already done that heavy lifting as we dug deep into our heart to find out what we really wanted. I really want a relationship with my mom that reflects my adulthood. I don’t want to stay stagnant in a parent-child dynamic I have outgrown.

Once we understand what purpose we are bringing, we need to understand the purpose the other person brings. What is it that my mother wants? Here again, the key will be to dig deep and not accept a surface-level answer. Human beings act in both predictable and unpredictable ways for one reason—we are trying to have our needs met. Those needs may be physical, financial, emotional, spiritual, or something else entirely. But ultimately, we are driven to act in order to meet a perceived need. So, another way of asking what your mother wants or what her purpose is, is to ask, “What need is my mother trying to meet by acting in this way? What need is met by hosting a traditional family Christmas dinner at her home?”

My guess is that you already have a pretty good idea of the answer. After all, you have known your mother all your life and have likely developed some insight about her. Think about your answer to that question of what needs your mother is trying to meet for herself by requiring everyone to show up for Christmas dinner. Got it in your head? Good. Now write it down. Done that? Good. Now tear it up and throw it away. Seriously. Don’t guess what your mother needs. Ask her. Ask her a couple of times in a couple of ways. Probe with curiosity, validation, and sensitivity. Really try to understand. So often we jump into a dialogue around purpose assuming we know (or have a pretty good guess) what the other person’s purpose is. We may be right. We may be wrong. It doesn’t matter. Either way, we will have done a disservice to him or her and to the dialogue by making the assumption.

If you want your mother to treat you as an adult, treat her like one by actively trying to understand what lies deep in her heart. What you find may surprise you. And, it will also give you the beginnings of a way forward. Once you understand her need, you can begin to see her actions within the context of that need. It doesn’t mean you will agree with those actions and it doesn’t mean that you will be eating Christmas dinner at her house or even that she will be eating it at your house. But what it does mean is that you can start to explore ideas and options to meet both of your needs.

Best Wishes and Happy Holidays,

You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

5 thoughts on “Weathering Strained Holiday Relationships”

  1. Gladys

    I appreciate that this sentence was included: “It doesn’t mean you will agree with those actions and it doesn’t mean that you will be eating Christmas dinner at her house or even that she will be eating it at your house.” Just because you want and try to come to mutual purpose doesn’t mean it will always happen and you shouldn’t feel guilty about that if you tried your best. If the mother’s purpose is to be the boss of the family and have her wishes always granted, or that she will not compromise in any way, then the statement about stopping talking to your mother, becomes the answer, but maybe only when the question of Christmas dinner at her house comes up. I would love to hear how this comes out next year.

  2. Michele

    That is called bad behavior on your mother’s part. Do not deal with it. Do what you feel is right. If she doesn’t like, her loss. Start living your life and stop giving into her. She is very selfish on her part.

  3. Grizzly bear mom

    PERHAPS mom is jealous that mom in law is needy and taking your time?

    Could it be that mom loves making the holday? Ask her to come help make it for mom in law. Maybe she can help make new years for mom in law while mil’s other kids visit.

    Otherwise for your mom to know mIil. Is health is failing is grossly unreasonable. No one has the right to make you choose like this. How sad for you.

  4. Sarah Dickinson

    Maybe both of you can come to a compromise. You spend Christmas morning at your house with your family and mother-in-law. Have your Christmas meal around lunchtime. In the evening, have your husband (and maybe kids) stay home with the mother-in-law, while you eat dinner at your mom’s house. You may not eat much, but I don’t think that would matter too much to your mom as long as your sitting at the table, spending time with her. This isn’t the best solution for anyone, but that is what a compromise is.

  5. Clifford Spoonemore

    When I was reading this adventure it reminded me of a old custom story. Great Great Grandma passed down the receipt for cooking the perfect roast beast. Of course the ingredients were listed and then the description of how to prepare the beast. And when the receipt was passed down to me from my mother. One of the items was to cut the ends of the beast. This really did not make much sense to me so I asked why? The answer was because that is what the receipt called for. Well that was not good enough for my curiosity and GG Grandma was still around so when we were all together for the big meal. I asked Grandma why she cut the ends off of the roast beast before cooking. She said; the beast would not fit into my cooking pan.

    Now that was not part of the receipt, but there must be a reason why Christmas is to be held at Mom’s house. For us kids it was the only time the family collected in one place and for a good reason, Christmas! As time went on some of the family said they could not make it. Then age also reached out to Mom and she said “no more, I’m tired”. We can still gather at her place but we had to bring some of the dinner. Just realizing that things change and to make sure as many can be a part, the group had to change.

    There is no winners if you cut both ends off the roast beast. Look for a way to make the meal a hole meal for even an hour or two. Good luck and I hope you will continue to enjoy Christmas with the family.

Leave a Reply