These are the five most common bad behaviors people fall for in the heat of an argument
They say it’s the most wonderful time of year. But how about the most stressful?
With all the traveling, visiting relatives, gift-buying and cooking, the holidays are a tense time for many families and couples.
In fact, January sees the highest rate of divorce filings out of the year.
Joyful gatherings can quickly turn into heated exchanges between spouses, in-laws and other family members, especially when underlying tensions already exist. Now’s the time to head off problems and stop everyday arguments from escalating.
To prevent holiday conflict, let’s take a look at the five most common “poisons” people reach for – and you need to steer clear of – in the heat of battle:
- Stop assuming.
There’s nothing more annoying than someone assuming he or she has superior knowledge. Think about it: being told how you feel or what you should do is a sure-fire way to get your blood boiling. When you’re tempted to throw out an assumption mid-argument (“You’re over-reacting” or “You need to listen”), remember that there can be different interpretations of someone’s behavior. Unless the other person has shared their feelings, don’t presume to know—or tell them—how they feel in that moment.
Instead, share what you’re observing and give your loved one a chance to correct or explain. This kind of conversation allows you to empathize with him or her, rather than stand in opposition. And if you’re on the receiving end of an assuming statement, be generous in your interpretation. Consider what might really be bothering the other person and recognize that despite the harsh words, this person is still someone you love.
- Stop generalizing.
If you start using words like “always, never, every, forever, anything, anyone, everyone, or typical,” you’re probably guilty of generalizing. But in life, there are exceptions to everything. Turn around this toxic behavior by thinking of your interaction like a court of law. The jury makes their judgment based only on the specific offense in question—not prior convictions.
To use this approach yourself, focus on the present. Stick to specific details and resist the urge to bundle together other similar situations. If a family member hurls sweeping statements at you, recognize the words as a single expression of anger. Don’t let them rile you. Instead, calmly steer the conversation back to the particular issue at hand.
- Stop attacking.
Name-calling, character assassination and, mudslinging are all common forms of this nasty poison. Attacking someone’s identity hits them hard. Whether you say something outright (“You’re so stupid”) or something more subtle (“A child could do better”), attacks like these are hurtful on a deep level.
If you find yourself labeling your family member in some way, redefine those negative characteristics as positive ones. Instead of calling the other person stubborn, think of him or her as determined. Character judgments are always going to be subjective, so why not make them positive ones? Strengthen your relationship by looking on the bright side. And if you are the target of name-calling, remember that in the heat of the moment, we all say things we don’t mean. Often when we find fault in someone else, we also see that same fault in ourselves. So when other people label you, imagine they are describing themselves. Choose to feel sympathy, not anger.
- Stop rejecting.
There are two words that turbo-charge an argument: “no” and “but.” They don’t even have to be verbalized; an eye roll or dismissive laugh can do the same damage. These words and actions shut down the conversation and reject the other person’s point of view.
Make an effort to resist using the word “no.” The alternative? Use the words “yes…and.” This change in language will force you to be more constructive. Instead of rejecting the other person’s idea completely, recognize the good points of their suggestion and then follow up with your concerns. That way, your loved one will feel listened to and you’ll show that you’re open to finding a solution. And whether you’re on the giving or receiving end of this poison, ask questions and offer (genuine!) suggestions to keep the discussion going.
- Stop defending.
When we’re attacked, it’s only human to protect ourselves. But going on the defense can easily turn into a total tantrum. Forget the blame game. If you feel yourself getting defensive (hint: you’ll start over-using the word “I’), take a step back and turn your attention elsewhere. Rather than try to find the problem in the argument, focus on finding the solution.
On the flip side, if your words are causing someone else to get defensive, avoid using the word “you.” In this case, it’s okay to use the word “I” to take ownership. Keep your statements positive and draw from your personal experience. If the argument is very heated, the quickest way to cool things off is to stay calm and empathize with the other person.
With awareness of these relationship poisons and knowledge of their antidotes, you can take steps to make positive change—and keep your relationships from going down in flames during this holiday season.
Dr. Sebastian Bailey is a bestselling author and the co-founder of Mind Gym, a corporate learning consultancy that transforms the way people think, act, and behave at work and at home. His newest book, Mind Gym: Achieve More by Thinking Differently, was released in September 2014. The book gives readers actionable ways, based on years of research, to change their way of thinking to achieve more, live longer and build better relationships. Connect with Sebastian on Twitter @DrSebBailey.
TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email email@example.com.