There’s nothing quite as heartwarming as the gleam in a child’s eye as they dream out loud of all the wonderful things Santa is going to bring them on Christmas morning.

As parents, we walk the fine line between encouraging such whimsical imaginings and knowing that someday we’ll have to break it to them that Santa isn’t really the one providing all the goodies. But in the meantime, we listen to their hearts’ desires and meet their joyful expectations the best we can.

In this case, expectations are fairly manageable. But what about those expectations we bring with us into adulthood – the ones that originate from who-knows-where, but somehow have become as real to us as the Unicorn in the backyard on Christmas morning is to our kids?

Mom expects the Thanksgiving table to look like Betty Crocker and Martha Stewart slaved away in her kitchen for days; Dad expects that, after all the hoopla, he’ll get to watch the football game in peace – in its entirety – with no requests to take out the trash or fix the over-worked garbage disposal. We each carry with us any number of unspoken expectations of the perfect holiday gathering, meal, activity, location, conversation, and so on.

Expectations like these are not quite so manageable. Why? Because as adults, our holiday expectations are no longer about what wonderful gifts we may receive at the holidays. These days, it may feel like the only gifts we’re likely to get are a dose of shame, blame, or criticism from the very people we want so desperately to accept us. Our childhood wonder has been replaced with a lifetime of experiences that have mostly taught us to protect ourselves at all costs.

That may sound a little harsh, but it’s meant to illustrate that each of us has the capacity to be a bit self-absorbed in our efforts to avoid the pain of not connecting. It all goes back to the Path to Disconnection that we talked about a few weeks ago. The underlying fear of not belonging is like kindling on the fire at a gathering where everyone longs to connect but most don’t have the skills to do so in a gentle, compassionate way. For many of us, talking about ourselves is the only way we know how to connect; when that fails us, as it inevitably does, we may resort to criticism, sarcasm, and judgment, to protect ourselves from the pain of not feeling seen and valued.

If only someone at the table knew how to help us feel heard, respected, and truly seen. Safe Conversations can help you be that someone.

While we don’t know specifically what issues may come up around your holiday table, we can offer a few pointers on how to deal with them with compassion when they do appear.

  • Be aware. Know that everyone has expectations that are going to come out sideways, and it’s really just the way most of us have learned to connect, awkward though it may be.
  • Replace judgment with genuine curiosity. Rather than criticize what’s been said, ask them to share more so you can learn what motivates them to think or believe as they do.
  • Validate their experiences. You don’t have to agree with someone to validate them as a unique and valuable human being whose opinions happen to differ from your own.
  • Empathize with their feelings. Let them know you hear them and can imagine their feelings. Share in their joy or be with them in their sadness.

These simple steps practiced skillfully, can shift almost any conversation from conflict to connection, and keep the holidays from becoming the holler-days.

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