Ask the Expert: Catherine Mattice on dealing with difficult relatives over the holidays

For many of us, the holidays are a wonderful chance to catch up with friends and family. However, these feelings of warmth and celebration can turn sour when we’re forced to spend time with bothersome guests. Fortunately, workplace civility guru Catherine Mattice was able to join our Ask the Expert webchat yesterday to answer your questions about how to handle these tricky social situations. Catherine is president of consulting and training firm, Civility Partners, and has been successfully providing programs in workplace bullying and building positive workplaces since 2007. She has published in a variety of trade magazines and has appeared as an expert in major news outlets including NPR, FOX, NBC, ABC, USA Today, Inc Magazine, Huffington Post, Entrepreneur Magazine, Washington Times, Psychology Today and Bloomberg. She’s also the author of BACK OFF! Your Kick-Ass Guide to Ending Bullying at Work and Seeking Civility: How Leaders, Managers and HR Can Create a Workplace Free of Bullying.

Here are the highlights from our webchat with Catherine. Please keep in mind all user participation is anonymous and confidential.

Dodging political debates

QUESTION — “I have a relative with very different political beliefs than me, and I don’t want our time together over the holidays to become a political debate, which it likely will knowing the relative. What are some good ways to handle that situation and get us all to move on to something more ‘joyous’ given the time of the year?”

Catherine Mattice — “I would call up that family member before the get-together and just kind of say, ‘Hey, I know we believe differently on some issues and I’d really hate for us to get wound up in them. Do you think we can agree to a no politics rule for the holidays?’ And, if they come up, just exit the conversation. Don’t engage. As he or she starts to bring it up, just say, ‘I don’t think we should discuss it.’ If they keep going, you say, ‘I don’t think we should discuss it.’ Even leave the room if you need. Really, don’t let yourself get sucked in.”

Politely declining

QUESTION — “How can you maintain a healthy diet when food is being pushed on you and you don’t want to offend anyone?”

Catherine Mattice — “Eat before you attend the event so you’re not inclined to eat as much, but leave room for snacking at the event. Then you can eat a little and not offend anyone. Also try eating more slowly – if your plate is full, people may be less likely to offer more food. As I said in previous comments too, setting expectations might help. You might let people know you are on a diet and have already made strides, and you don’t want to mess it up. Ask them to support you by not pushing you to eat, and let them know you’ll just be snacking.”

QUESTION — “My family is loud and high-strung, and I find being around them over the holidays to be quite stressful. Is it okay for me to decline visiting them? How should I bring it up?”

Catherine Mattice — “I think the answer depends on your own family, so I can’t give a straight one here. For example, I’ve spent many holidays away from my family because I didn’t feel like going, and that was fine. But I have a friend whose parents would die if he didn’t go see them for the holidays. So it depends which side your family is on.

In the end, I am a big advocate for doing what’s right for YOU. We spend so much of our time trying to please others by sending the perfect email responses, calling our friends on their birthdays, etc. I personally think it’s okay to do what’s best for you now and again. So, I vote for yes, it’s okay to decline the visit, but again that comes from my own background.

If you do decline, just be straight with them. Let them know you need some time alone this holiday because it’s been a busy year, or whatever it is. Always asking for their support helps too. So you could say, ‘This year I really need to be on my own because of X, Y and Z. Can I get your support in this decision this year?’ That sort of puts them on the spot – what are they going to say? ‘No I’m not going to support you?’ Not likely.”

Rules of engagement

QUESTION — “I have a no cell-phone policy at the dinner table with my immediate family. Can I ask my guests to follow this rule?”

Catherine Mattice — “Absolutely! Just let people know at some point as everyone’s sitting down to eat. You could even make a joke of it to help make your point – or have a game. Let people know a peek at the cell phone requires a quarter in the quarter jar, and you’ll be using the money to buy them an ugly Xmas sweater.”

QUESTION — “I have purposefully created a seating plan this year to keep certain volatile people away from each other. How can I make sure my guests actually sit in the seats I’ve assigned?”

Catherine Mattice — “Great idea! A few thoughts come to mind: could you put some sort of little item or game or something at each table to inspire people to sit where they were assigned? So maybe grandma gets a picture of herself when she was a little girl, and your brother gets a little plastic car similar to the one he had as a child. A little gift makes it harder for people to switch on you. You might also let people know as they come to the door – ‘Hey I’ve already strategically put you in the perfect spot, so make sure you sit there!’ Do it in a cheerful, ‘this will be fun’, kind of tone, and that will help. Last suggestion: get a few close friends or family members to help you monitor. Remind your sister that Susan absolutely cannot sit next to Richard, for example, and ask her to help you ensure that doesn’t happen.”

Dividing your time fairly

QUESTION — “I am newly married and both sets of parents do not get along. They both want us to spend the holidays with them. How do I split up our time that makes it fair?”

Catherine Mattice — “If you all live in the same town, perhaps you could do morning with one and evening with the other, and then switch next year. If they are in different cities, same rules apply: whatever you do this year, you switch it next year. I’ve experienced this myself, and sometimes you just have to have the hard conversation with your parents – let them know you love them and want to be with them, but you love your spouse and need to do what’s right for the marriage too, and that means splitting your time for the holidays. Hopefully everyone will understand.”

Don’t miss our next Ask the Expert session!

If you weren’t able to catch our webchat with Catherine Mattice, you can always sign into your LifeSpeak account to read the transcript. And be sure to log in January 16 at noon EST to chat with nutrition expert Toby Amidor. She’ll be answering questions about debunking diet myths. We will also be hosting a webchat in French on the same topic on January 18 at noon EST with nutritionist Isabelle Huot. If you don’t have a LifeSpeak account, please have your HR team reach out to us.

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Also published on Medium.