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Does the idea of going home for the holidays have you feeling a little anxious? If so, you are not alone. It can be very difficult to navigate family dynamics at holiday gatherings. Although I don’t recommend managing your family in the exact same way you manage people at work, here are a few leadership behaviors that may help you have a truly happy holiday despite any family dysfunctions.

Know your stress triggers.

Think about the behavior patterns of the family members that irritate or stress you out. Long before you arrive home, decide on 2-3 ways you can take some space for yourself when tensions rise. You may opt to excuse yourself and go read in your room. You may choose to take a walk or a run with the family dog. You may quietly escape to the garage to get in a few deep cleansing breaths. Whatever your plan is to manage your stress triggers, act early and fast. If you tolerate stressful circumstances too long, you may end up blowing a gasket and overreacting. Good leaders are masters of self-awareness and self-regulation.

Say no thank you when you’ve had enough.

In much the same way leaders don’t say yes to everything their employees want, you are under no obligation to say yes to every family activity, tradition, or holiday food platter. So often, the holidays can be over scheduled and overwhelming. The food can be excessive, and the traditions can be tiresome. When what you really need is relaxation and moderation, communicate your needs proactively. You might say, I’m going to forgo lunch because I’m still digesting that delicious breakfast.  Or you might say, I’m going to pass on the family football game but I’d love you watch and cheer you on. Good leaders stay engaged while honoring their own boundaries.

Show up in service.

Be a servant leader and ask how you can help. Offer to cook a meal, do the dishes, do the grocery shopping, play with the little ones, and help decorate. Do what you can to give the one who’s always on their feet a break and if that’s you, ask for help. No pity parties. Ask everyone to help, including the teenagers. It makes them feel needed even if there is a little moaning and groaning. Be the example you hope to see in them. That’s the way of the servant leader. Offer up helpful ways to simplify the holiday. So often, less is more.

Don’t assume. Ask.

Good leaders don’t presume to know. When a family member is stressed out, overreacting, irritated or on the verge of tears, sit down with them and ask them what’s going on. Be an empathetic listener. Seek to really understand where they are coming from. Acknowledge their emotions. Ask them what would support them in feeling better or more balanced. It may or may not be what you think. Let them share in their own words. They may just need to vent, in which case your presence and listening ear are worth their weight in gold. Close the loop by checking back in with them a few hours later or the next day. It’s a reminder that they can count on your support in hard moments. This is a good example of how we are better when we are together.

Don’t take anything personally.

As leaders sometimes say, its just business. But what about when its family? It gets a lot more complicated. Emotions often run high at holiday family gatherings. Everyone arrives with their idealistic expectations of what the holiday should be and how everyone should show up. Unfortunately, the actual holiday experience commonly falls short, and disappointment and frustration ensue. Then, we start to see behaviors like blaming, accusing, and projecting. We see this at work as well when outcomes fall short of expectations. Just like one of our employees, the family member doing the blaming, accusing, and projecting is having an emotional reaction to an unmet need, which is that the holiday didn’t meet their expectations. You might acknowledge that the actual holiday was indeed different from their expectations then follow that up with what did go well, what was fun, and what you’ll do again next year because it worked. See what you can do to help them shift into a more positive perspective. When you don’t take the blaming, accusing, and projecting personally, you can see it for what it really is – an unmet expectation in need of a new interpretation. It really isn’t about you. It’s about them.

Choose love.

When in doubt, pour on the love. What would it look like to love someone in your family who is driving you crazy? What would it look like to lean in, hug your crabby aunt and tell her you love her? What would it look like to consider what’s right with all your family members instead of what’s wrong with them? Good leaders love with compassion, empathy, and understanding. They love with words of gratitude, by giving their undivided attention, and choosing kindness over control. These same leadership traits will work well with family members at your holiday gathering. Love never fails. You can’t go wrong when you choose love.

Your holiday will be what you make of it. Your thoughts, feelings, mindset, choices, and actions will create your holiday experience. Choose wisely and show up like a leader.

Sara Harvey

Founder & President, innertelligence

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