THE BLOG
11/22/2013 06:01 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

9 'Recipes' for Happy, Harmonious Holiday Family Gatherings

During the holiday season we often find ourselves among extended family and friends that we may only see once or twice a year. And let's admit it, there are some we are just not so thrilled to see. So here are some tips on being nice to your family and keeping your cool during the holidays (no table tipping).

1. Prepare yourself. Sometimes you are going to need what I call a pre-game ritual before you deal with a group of family members. And no, I don't mean popping some prescription drugs. Before you join the group, spend a few minutes thinking about how you want to behave. Don't just react in the moment -- consider how you want to act. If you've had unpleasant experiences in the past, think about why they were unpleasant and what you could do to change the dynamics of the situation. If you truly want everyone to get along, then you need to do your part to contribute to a harmonious atmosphere.

2. Change your expectations. I actually mean to lower your expectations. You can ask for help, but don't expect it. You can provide your family with a Santa or wish list when they ask for it, but remember you may not get anything on it. Families are never fair. Work is never equally divided. You have no control over that. So be prepared to do everything, but happy to do nothing. And be surprised when you get the things on your wish list, but grateful to get any gift. Wasting time being mad because some people don't do their share or don't participate in gift giving or family rituals ruin the whole experience for you. And because you are grumpy you run the risk of ruining it for everyone.

3. Be compassionate and hold your tongue. You want to celebrate with your family because you love them. Complaining and competing with other family members are not acts of love. Some of your family members are under a lot of pressure to make everyone happy; cut them some slack. Also try not to criticize. Nothing is more hurtful or hard to watch than someone criticizing someone else in front of others. Whether it's your kids or your spouse or your sister, holidays are a time to suspend critical thinking and just surrender to holiday spirit. Think about how topics that seem innocuous to you might upset someone else. You may think you're showing a polite interest, but some questions will rub a person the wrong way: "So do you have a boyfriend yet?" "When are you two going to start a family?" "Didn't you give up smoking?" "Can you really afford that?" Asking these types of questions is a recipe for potentially negative dialogue.

4. Ask questions and listen to the answers. A good strategy is to simply listen to others. You can learn a lot about others by asking some open ended, innocuous questions like "What have you been up to?" How are the kids?" Done any fun things lately?" Asking these types of questions get people talking and you also can choose how much you want to share.

5. Don't drink too much alcohol. It can seem festive and fun to fill up your glass, but it's easy to lose track of how much you're drinking. And it is also easy to use drinking as a way to numb yourself or get in a better mood. Alcohol makes some people feel merry, but it also makes some people feel combative or self-pitying or lowers their inhibitions in a destructive way. So if you are trying not to be critical and trying to have compassion for family members, then don't drink too much.

6. Divide and conquer. Separate celebrations are the smart way to go, especially for family members who live far away or otherwise don't get to see their cousins, grandchildren or other relatives very often. What's more, separate events are generally the only way to go in families where the adult children -- or the grandparents -- are divorced. The gathering does not always have to be on the holiday. Remember, it's the time you spend together that counts, not the date on the calendar.

7. Establish rituals and play your part in the tradition. For some people, traditions are very, very important. For others, no. You may feel irritated by your brother's insistence on having exactly the same food every year, or by your mother's extreme reaction to the possibility that you might not come home for the day. Try to be patient and play your part. In the long run, traditions and rituals sustain family bonds. If you're the one who wants everything to be perfect, ease up on yourself and everyone else, so that you can enjoy the day, whatever happens.

8. Realize that the only person you can change is yourself. We all have people in our lives who we wish would be different. But it's just not going to happen. Adjust your own attitude about it, and suddenly the situation seems much more bearable. The thing you can control is how you react and how much you let personality issues affect your mood.

9. Know that one day, you're going to miss this. This became more real for me being a single mom and again this year when people in my family have passed away. Watching people come and go and some reaching the point where they can no longer travel or cook or participate in the family rituals will make you realize how important family is. You never know what will happen between this holiday and the next, so savor every moment.