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Having to change your Christmas plans last minute? Here’s how to tell your family

Need to change your Christmas plans because of coronavirus-related safety concerns, but not sure how to break the news to your loved ones? Here’s how to navigate this potentially-tricky conversation, according to an expert.

Navigating the emotional strain of the coronavirus pandemic has become even more difficult thanks to the arrival of Christmas.

While some family members may be on the same page as you when it comes to how (and whether) you spend time with each other this Christmas, others may have differing opinions about how this year’s celebrations should go ahead.

Indeed, even if the new tier four restrictions introduced yesterday get in the way of pre-arranged plans and you’ve got no choice but to cancel, some people may struggle to understand why things can’t go ahead as normal and be offended by the suggestion that to do so wouldn’t be safe.

With all of this in mind, it’s likely that those people who have decided not to see family this year will be facing some tricky conversations over the next couple of days. This is especially true for those who have made the tough decision not to see family on Christmas day because of safety concerns, even when to do so would not be breaking the rules (in areas in tier three or lower).

However, just because these conversations are likely to be difficult, doesn’t mean we should hide away from talking about it altogether – even if it takes two or three conversations to reach a point of agreement.

“Remind yourself that the consequences of not talking are potentially worse than the initial discomfort that conversations with family members might involve,” explains Sarah Rozenthuler, chartered psychologist and author of How To Have Meaningful Conversations: 7 Strategies For Talking About What Matters.

“Things left unsaid or festering resentments can plague families for a long time. Feelings or regret for not speaking out can really linger, as can sadness about broken relationships that silence stopped from healing.”

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With this in mind, it’s important that we feel equipped to handle these conversations – both for our wellbeing and that of our loved ones.

To find out more about communicating effectively – and how to avoid unnecessary arguments – we asked Rozenthuler for her top tips when it comes to handling emotionally sensitive conversations. Here’s what she had to say.

1. Prepare, prepare, prepare

A person writing a to-do list
How to handle difficult conversations: make a 'to-do' list of all the potential concerns/queries which you might need to address beforehand.

Before you go about talking to your family about your Christmas plans, make sure to think about what you want to say and prepare for any questions or concerns they might have.

“‘To fail to prepare is to prepare to fail’ is as true for a conversation as it is for other challenges,” Rozenthuler says. “With an unprecedented Christmas approaching, it requires courage to have a conversation and risk dealing with the emotional fallout, whether your own or the other person’s. A little prep can go a long way to us feeling on steadier ground when we reach out to talk.

“You might find it helpful to think about who you need to talk with first. For example, you might want to talk with your sibling about what their plans are or call a care home to check what arrangements they require provide before you talk with your parent or partner. You may need to have a series of conversations and being thoughtful about the sequence can save a lot of time and heartache.”

2. Pick your moment

“Once you’ve decided who to talk to, choose your timing carefully,” Rozenthuler recommends. “Rather than trying to speak when people are watching TV or have had a drink, select a time when the other person is able to absorb what you have to say.”

If you’re speaking to someone virtually, that might mean scheduling in a time for the pair of you to jump on a call, rather than taking them by surprise.

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“You should also work out how you’re going to begin the conversation,” Rozenthuler adds. 

“For example, if you want to discuss not visiting your parents at Christmas, you could say, ‘I’d really like to talk with you about something that really matters to me and that we might disagree about. Is now a good time?’”

3. Watch your tone

Knowing how you’re going to get your point across before you start the conversation will help you to remain calm and get your point across in a respectful way.

“Practise saying the words you want to say out loud so that you’re as confident as you can be going in,” Rozenthuler suggests. “You could even record yourself and play it back to hear how you sound and whether the words you use are appropriate. 

“It’s important when talking that you hit the right tone. Aim for being respectful yet firm. Be receptive as well as clear about your own point of view. You don’t want to come across as talking down to the other person. The more the other person feels ‘met’ by you as an equal, the more positive their response is likely to be.”

With this in mind, avoid suggesting that your way is the ‘right’ way to do things – instead, talk them through your thought process and try to explain why your decision is right for you.  

4. Speak simply

A woman speaking over Zoom
How to handle difficult conversations: be open and honest about how you're feeling.

There’s no need to dramatize things and beat around the bush – if you’re honest and open about how you feel, there’s less chance things will get lost in translation and cause an upset.

“Share how you feel as simply as you can,” Rozenthuler advises. “You might start by saying, for example, ‘I feel concerned that if we don’t talk about this, our relationship will become more and more difficult for us both.’

“The more authentic you are, the more you encourage the other person to be real. While it can feel risky to state how you feel, it’s the only way to have a heart-to-heart.”

5. Be sensitive about how the other person is feeling

No matter how the other person is feeling, acknowledging their emotions – and doing your best to provide reassurance – can go a long way towards having a constructive conversation.

“People will often only calm down once they feel they’ve been listened to,” Rozenthuler says. “Saying something along the lines of, ‘It seems like you’re feeling really angry about this’, or ‘I can understand that you feel that way’ can go a long way to put out a fire. It’s possible to show empathy and understanding without having to agree with their point of view.”

She continues: “When emotions run high, provide reassurance where you can. You might say, ‘I really want to make sure that you feel cared for at Christmas so I’d like us to talk about what support will be best for you, given the situation we all find ourselves in.’”

If things get really heated, don’t be afraid to step away from the conversation for a little bit, too.

“Make allowances for the other person feeling out of their depth,” Rozenthuler recommends. “You might find it helpful to say, ‘Let’s hit the pause button for now and pick this up again at the weekend when we’ve both had time to gather our thoughts’.” 

6. Ask questions – and listen to the answers

The best way to reach a resolution which suits both parties is to simply ask what the other person is looking for and do your best to meet in the middle.

“Instead of launching in by giving advice or stating your opinion, focus on finding out what matters to the other person,” Rozenthuler explains. 

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“Useful questions include, ‘What is it that you really want?’ and, ‘What can I do to help?’

“You might think it’s a great idea to have a Zoom call for the whole family but is this what they really want? Once you’ve asked them what they want, listen, listen, listen! You might arrive at a solution that you’d not thought about on your own.”

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