11/26/2009 12:22 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

When Bad Relatives Happen To Good People

It's the late-night, whispered conversation between you and your spouse when you're finally alone in the bedroom after an exhausting day of dealing with family holiday drama.

"You've got to talk to her," hisses the wife, who has been counting the days until the "holiday" is over.

"She's just trying to be helpful," says the conflict-avoider husband, who by this point in the visit has started to measure his time in minutes.

"How is criticizing everything I do helpful?" the wife seethes.

"I swear, if she makes one more comment, I will strangle her. You mark my words, get me in front of a jury, and when I tell them everything that woman has done to me over the years, there's not a court in the land that will convict me."

There's nothing like the dysfunctions of others to bring out the beast in us, especially when they're family. 

Whether it's the critical in-laws or mooching cousin Eddie, the holidays mean family together time, and for many, it's torture at best.

A recent study from the authors of the New York Times best-seller Crucial Conversations revealed that four out of five people have attended a "miserable" party with family members. (And you thought it was just your relatives.)

However, the study also revealed that it's not so much the nutty relatives that make you dread the holidays; it's how much confidence you have in your ability to deal with them.

Joseph Grenny, one of the Crucial Conversations authors, says, "There are two kinds of people. The people who are dreading having the family members come, and the people who have equally quirky family members, but who are not dreading them."

The difference lies in your ability to have what Grenny refers to as, fittingly, a crucial conversation.

A crucial conversation is one where the opinions vary, the stakes are high and emotions run strong. You know, like that time you tried to talk to your in-laws about spending the holidays at your house instead of making the all-night drive to Oklahoma and cramming your entire family into their musty basement.

For many, it's hard to envision a conversation about an emotional topic that is anything but awful.  So we resign ourselves to the either/or choice of igniting an emotional fire pit or silently gritting our teeth in an effort to keep the peace.

However, Grenny calls is "The Sucker's Choice."
"Choosing to say nothing or lashing out poorly only fuels the fires of family dysfunction," he says.

Instead, he suggests, we need to search for the elusive AND.

That is, imagine ourselves addressing the hot topic AND maintaining the relationship.
You don't need to blast your in-laws with an unfiltered version of "all the awful things you've done to me over the last decade."

If you want them to quit criticizing your child-rearing choices, you can address it in a calm way.
Grenny reccomends suspending your own judgments (she's a witch who hates me) and thinking about what you really want (I'd like them to be more supportive of my parenting).

Again, it's not an either/or choice between fighting or ignoring.  With a little planning (and some deep breaths) you can have a calm conversation. 

I address either/or family dramas in my new book The Triangle of Truth.

But here's the bottom line: you're right; your family is flawed, AND they probably also have some fabulous qualities.

The faster you can accept the flaws and search for the fabulous, the happier your holidays will be.

Lisa Earle McLeod is an author, syndicated columnist, business consultant and popular keynote speaker.  Her newest book The Triangle of Truth: The Surpisingly Simple Secret to Resolving Conflicts Large and Small hits bookstores January 5.