Three Steps to Getting Along With Your Family This Holiday

Notice, Ask, Listen

It’s that time of year. Cars are packed to go over the river and through the woods to Grandma’s house, airplanes travel to bring people home for a merry little Christmas, and we attend party after party in hopes of having the most wonderful time of the year.

Are you ready to enjoy it all?

Or are your boxing gloves out, ready to spar over Trump, #metoo, the tax bill, and the bleeding heart liberals/radical evangelicals/Democrats/Republicans that are ruining this country? Have you already constructed an argument to defend your career choice? Are you preparing biting remarks to counter questions about why you don’t have any children?

What if you took a different approach?

Shifted your mindset from judgment to learning?

Listened to understand instead of looking for holes in an argument?

Here are three steps to make this shift. I’m not going to say they’re easy. Your patience and resolve will be tested. But I’m certain they will help you know your family better and have a lower-stress holiday!


When you visit family and friends, pause and look at them. Really look at them. What is different from the last time you met? What emotions do you see in their face? Stop and notice “and this person you thought you knew will feel different and that person will respond to you differently,” mindfulness researcher Ellen Langer said on a recent OnBeing podcast. “And this happens instantly.”

Instant change simply by taking the time to notice? That’s something worth trying!


In September I spent two weeks in Croatia with three friends that I had collectively known for over 30 years. Instead of the usual chitchat during dinner, we decided to ask thought-provoking questions. Here is just a sample of our discussions:

  • What change could you make right now that would have an immediate impact on your life?
  • Is everyone capable of being a leader?
  • What three words would you use to describe the human race?
  • If you had to spend $10,000, what would you spend it on?

These questions led to more questions, personal stories and reflections. There was laughter, tears – and some disagreement! But I learned more about my friends in those two weeks than I had in the previous decades I had known them.

Not sure where to start? Get curious. What do you want to know about your family? The story of how your grandparents met? What it was like to for your aunt to live during the cultural tumult of the 1960s and how that compares to today? What your cousin loves about his job? Ask, and then….


Listening is not simply being quiet. It isn’t keeping your mouth shut while you internally formulate a rebuttal. It isn’t waiting for your turn to speak.

Listening is shifting the focus away from the thoughts running through your head and to the other person. Listen to their words, their tone, and their body language. Listen to understand their experience and perspective. Use your energy to purposefully give them your full attention.

There will be times when your emotions get the better of you. When your aunt asks if you’re ever going to get married at the same time the dog jumps on the table and starts eating the meat and your grandfather blames it on Obama. This will happen.

Before reacting, take a deep breath. This single moment is often enough to regroup and purposefully decide what to do next. Then:

  • Consciously switch back to noticing.
  • Instead of interrupting with your own point of view, ask, “How did you come that conclusion?”
  • Seek understanding by actively listening.

Notice, ask, listen, repeat and see what happens.

Happy holidays!

Further resources:

  • Braving the Wilderness by Brené Brown – A phenomenal book on belonging and rebuilding our communities through listening, authenticity, and courage.
  • Change Your Questions, Change Your Life by Marilee Adams – It has the appearance of a business book, but the content on shifting from judgment to learning and asking questions to seek understanding applies to every part of life.


Heather Whelpley is a speaker and coach that works with women to combat self-doubt, own their brilliance, and step into the career and life they desire. See her home page or join Heather’s mailing list to learn more. 

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