Holiday Lessons

The holidays bring families together. Grown children join siblings and parents, grandparents, cousins, nephews, uncles and aunts to exchange gifts, to warmly toast each other’s health, and to talk about good times.

If the period of togetherness lasts long enough, and the shared space small enough, and the thermostat up high enough, the talk can get a little edgier, and memories of earlier and not such good times, begin to emerge. Uncle Jack’s not as funny, Aunt Penny’s not as forthright, and Brother Tom’s not as friendly as any of you remember any of them to be. Dad’s practical jokes backfire, Sis’s impractical behaviors misfire, and you get more unsolicited advice and unwelcome feedback than you can stand, even on a good day.

A little more eggnog (that’s heavy on the nog and light on the egg) and the family conversation can get a little darker. Instead of emerging from the season of light and joy with light and joy, you return home with a heavy heart, a bad attitude, and a vow to never again spend the holidays with family, no matter how good the food is.

Whoa. Rather than make a promise that you’re apt to forget or sure to regret, learn from the experience. Work on ways to change what you say and how you respond to the people who push the buttons they put in place.

With that in mind, and winter festivities coming on fast, let’s look at ways you can apply your new- found wisdom:

Lesson #1: Let it go. If “it” is an old battle never resolved with Uncle Henry, let it go. If it’s a grown brother or a sister who acts like a jerk, or makes you feel like one, let it go. If it’s an embattled history with your father or an embittered memory of your mother, let it go.  You may not be able to replace negative memories with good feelings but you can create a different present and a better future, by letting go of whatever was broken and the person who broke it. The world has changed as has your place in it.

Lesson #2: This isn’t Burger King. You can’t have it your way. If you’re

the youngest, the oldest, the cutest, the meanest, or the only-est, you may have grown up in a household where you got what you wanted, and everyone seemed pleased to give it to you. Times have changed. Family members have evolved in their development, and as they have, their roles and goals have too.

Step forward, not back. Acknowledge and accommodate the needs and wants of those with whom you break bread and share space. Yield ground, not because you have to, but because you choose to.

Lesson #3: Learn the art of conversation. You may love a good debate, but if your sister doesn’t, she calls it an argument. You may have strong opinions that your brother doesn’t like, so he may think you’re full of it. If your take no prisoner’s style of communication creates tension for others, change your approach. Be a statesman. Allow others the time and space to express themselves comfortably, without feeling they have to protect or defend themselves against you.

Lesson#4: Combine a good sense of humor with a balanced sense of perspective. Don’t take yourself, or the situation you’re in, too seriously. Remember the adage, “this too shall pass.” Be able to poke fun at yourself, not the other person.  Take a time-out when discussions start to get heated. Find common ground and common interests, and if you can’t, change the subject to a discussion you can all enjoy.

Lesson #5: Empathy is infinitely better than enmity. If you see the same issues differently, put yourself in the other person’s shoes to understand their perspective. Ask questions and listen to their responses, so that you can understand their feelings and not challenge their thinking.

Five lessons, well learned, can improve your ability to enjoy family holidays with an open heart, and without fear, frustration, and guilt. With practice, they enable you to work more effectively and constructively with the people in your life, at work, at home, and in the community.

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Joyce Richman ( has been specializing in executive and career coaching since she started her own practice in 1982. She works in a variety of environments including: higher education, manufacturing, sales, marketing, media, technology, pharmaceuticals, medicine, banking and finance, service, IT, and non-profit sectors. A member of the adjunct faculty at the Center for Creative Leadership, Joyce is certified to administer a number of feedback and psychological instruments. Joyce has appeared regularly on WFMY-TV and is the career columnist for The Greensboro News & Record. She is the author of Roads, Routes and Ruts: A Guidebook to Career Success and co-author of Getting Your Kid Out of the House and Into a Job. A popular speaker, Richman conducts seminars and workshops throughout the United States, Canada and Europe. Her coaching profile can be found at