The holiday season is upon us once again. A joyous time of family, friends, feasts, and football. Of giving thanks, giving gifts, and giving tips on how to get through the annual fusion of today’s radioactive communities without sparking a chain reaction that nukes it all.
Your social media platforms will feed you dozens of helpful essays on this topic, but as a guy whose parents provided him with 12 marriages and 11 step-parents between them, I’m confident our tips on navigating the raging waters of modern holidays will be some of the best. (You read that right. That’s “12” and “11.” It’s, y’know, complicated.)
This essay is probably longer than most of the others you’ll dig up. Partly because a longer essay is handy if you really do just need to hunker down, tune out, put eyes to screen, and gut your way through the holiday gatherings. (I don’t recommend that approach, but sometimes you gotta. So if an earbuds option will help, consider tuning in to our NoCTalk podcast.)
Mostly though, this is a long essay because it’s laid out like a buffet so you can snack as you go and load your plate with the appetizers you find most appealing.
Leading Through the Holidays
Perhaps unsuprisingly, I view holiday gatherings through the lens of Communication-Based Leadership — particularly the four timeless truths and six essential questions of CBL.
Even choosing who has to sit at the kids’ table is a leadership activity.
What could CBL possibly have to do with the holidays, you ask?
I’m glad you did.
Maybe you’ll host a holiday gathering. Perhaps you’ll be a guest. Choosing who has to sit at the kids’ table and sorting out who will bring what to a potlock are leadership activities.
But leadership isn’t just about position and authority. It is a lifestyle. It is situational.
Even if you aren’t in charge, you can lead up and across. You can be the guide, the glue, and a guardian who helps keep things together in the midst of chaos — because even joyous chaos is stressful.
Embrace Four Timeless Truths
Everything is a communication activity, our capacity to communicate is finite, leadership is about relationships, and enduring success requires trust.
(If you’d like to geek out on this stuff over the holidays, bookmark The Enduring Truths of Communication-Based Leadership at the Hard NoCs blog.)
Embrace these truths. Don’t fight them.
These truths of CBL endure at home and when out with friends, not just in the workplace, and they compound in close quarters, particularly when you are surrounded by family members and friends who likely run the gamut of political, spiritual, financial, educational, social, sexual, and generational perspectives.
Embrace these truths. Don’t fight them.
- Be aware of what your words and actions convey to those around you.
What does it mean to others if you smile, talk softly, or raise your voice? What message will they receive if you plant yourself in a corner with your head down on your phone? Gather the youngsters around to read them a story or play a boardgame? Take the last piece of pie without asking if anyone else might want it? (Don’t be that guy!)
- Your capacity to interact with the folks around you is limited. Invest it wisely.
It’s likely a rare thing to have so many of your family members and friends together in one place. Take advantage of the opportunity.
- Focus on the relationships that matter most.
- Build trust by making sure the things you say and do match up.
Unity starts at the family and community level. Don’t just say, “I love you” and “It’s been good to see you again.” Show it. Take time to chat and catch up. Help set the table and clean the kitchen. Maybe drop an olive or two in your favorite cousin’s glass of milk when they aren’t looking. (Or is that tradition unique to my family?)
Answer Six Essential Questions
Thinking through the answers to six essential questions will make any holiday gathering easier.
Think ahead to what you want to get out of your holiday season and each gathering of family and friends.
- What are the driving issues you want to discuss (or avoid)?
Think ahead to the topics that matter most to you and those who will gather with you. Prioritize the ones you want to discuss — and those you want to avoid!
- Who will you communicate with?
Think ahead about who those people are, what is going on in their life, and what you want to learn from or share with them.
- What is your goal?
Think ahead to what you want to get out of your holiday season and each gathering of family and friends. It probably won’t be the time to convince a Patriot’s fan to switch favorite sports teams or call out “that uncle” for being an unwitting contributor to perpetuation of the patriarchy and systematic racism. But it is a terrific opportunity to get to know people better and find common ground.
- Where will you interact with those around you?
Thanksgiving kicks off a season when large gatherings and family events dominate your personal time. Whether you end up at a holiday party scarfing down Chex party mix, yelling at life-size football referees on the big screen, or pushing back from the table to make room for a belly filled with turkey and potatoes while reaching for the pie, you will be inundated by opportunities to communicate and strengthen (or destroy) relationships.
Prepare ahead of time to take the high road.
The right approach very much depends on where you are and who will gather with you. There is no black and white set of rules to guide conversation. But rest assured, your ability to communicate effectively will be tested throughout the season.
Are there topics you know will be controversial? Don’t talk politics or religion is generally wise counsel — but have a plan going in.
If you suspect you’ll be dragged into conversations where your opinion could start a fight, prepare ahead of time to take the high road. Differences of opinion regarding impeachment or faith won’t likely be solved in the living room or at the dinner table — and the price of trying can be high.
Try these tips to make the best of the rare opportunity to gather with you family and friends:
- If you find yourself at odds with someone, acknowledge key points from the “other side” and seek common ground. Strive to build bridges you can cross at a later day, even if they’re shaky. You don’t have to win an argument, or even give ground. Just get along.
- Change the subject if you have to. Turn to help a crying child. Glance at the game on TV and give a “Woop!” for whatever play just went down. Or use a question overheard from another room as an excuse to step away. But find an opportunity to suspend the conversation, then start a new one later in the day.
- Ignore shouts aimed at nobody in particular about the newscast blaring on the TV. Those are usually intended to elicit a response. If no one bites, the protagonist will generally move on. (Then mabye convince someone to switch the TV from the newscast to a ball game. While you’re at it, you can ask them to turn down the volume, because, C’MON!)
- Don’t insert yourself into a conversation to make a point that won’t change someone for the better. You gave a lot of deliberate thought to how you want the event to go, so stick to your plan. Don’t get dragged down or sucked in to crazy land. Focus on your goal.
At NoC we rarely advise folks to avoid important conversations, but we do encourage you be deliberate when choosing how, when, and where to engage on key issues, to understand the people you will be talking with, and what you hope to accomplish from the interaction.
Each of us has a limited amount of communication capacity. Invest it wisely.
Embracing the four timeless truths and answering the six essential questions of Communication-Based Leadership is an excellent way to preserve important relationships — and your sanity.
To you and yours from all of us at North of Center, we wish you the very best this Thanksgiving and throughout the holiday season.
Be excellent to each other.
Lead where you are.
Cliff holds a PhD in organization and management with a specialization in leadership. A U.S. Marine Corps veteran, he completed operational deployments to Fallujah, Iraq and Kandahar and Helmand, Afghanistan. He has led multi-national and inter-agency teams including approximately one year on loan from the Corps as Director of Policy, Planning, and Outreach for the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of International Information Programs. He also directly advised the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on public and media engagement regarding national security matters for two years as Special Assistant for Public Communication. Today he puts that experience to work helping people become the kind of leaders they would want to follow.