12/22/2014 11:24 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Simple Gifts to Make Your Holidays More Joyful

By: Pat Christen, President and CEO of HopeLab


I am 30 minutes early for a breakfast meeting on this late December morning, so I take advantage of the moment to experience the energy of people enjoying the season, savor a quiet cup of tea and take in the beautiful holiday decorations. Within a few minutes, snippets of nearby conversations make their way to my table, and I find my holiday reverie colliding with a cacophony of drama, dread and disappointment.

My in-laws are coming in for the holidays. We'll get through that and then go on vacation for New Year's. Thank God.

I really look forward to the holidays, but then I just want them to be over. Especially when my right-wing father shows up.

A lot of holiday time is fun, but it doesn't have that sacred feeling to me anymore.

This dread and ambivalence stand in such contrast to the sense of wonder I associate with this season. At their best, the holidays are infused with awe and wonder, and we revel in it. We add sparkle to everything -- our food, our clothes, our tables. We lie on our living room floors, squinting to transform tree lights and candlelight into blurry kaleidoscopes. We prepare foods that conjure powerful memories. We carefully choose gifts and lovingly write cards.

In the midst of all this joy and wonder, why, then, do we also prepare for the holidays as if preparing for battle? We anticipate crossing paths with friends and relatives we seldom see and with whom we are eager to take exception. We envision conversations related to highly charged stories dominating the latest news. We plan our offensive as if it's the Normandy Invasion. If he sits there, then I will position myself here. If she says X, then I'll say Y. Our daily news consumption becomes a fact-finding mission to buttress arguments we know we'll be having (or inciting!).

Why are we so willing to hold objects, music, food and decorations in such awe around the holidays, while we approach our fellow humans (our families, even) with such suspicion and trepidation? Might we approach the breathing human beings gathered around our holiday tables with the same reverence that we offer the flickering candles and beautiful flowers? Curiosity, wonder and humor are simple gifts that can transform your experience this season.

Practice curiosity
Even if you don't feel especially curious, you can still practice curiosity. Instead of finding ways to make your point of view known to Uncle Harry, find ways to illuminate his interests and positions. Listen to understand, not to debate. This is hard work. It takes skillful practice and a genuine willingness to take the perspectives of others with whom we might strongly disagree. So how do we do this?

First, let others tell their stories. Rather than plunging headlong into a recitation of the world from our perspective, we simply commit to listening to others first, curious about what leads them to their perspective. Think of it as an act of generosity (to the host and everyone else in the room) to simply give folks a chance to speak and be heard. Rather than coming to the gatherings "armed" with our facts and arguments, we come bearing the gifts of respect and curiosity.

In my work, I've come to appreciate the remarkable and transformative power of cultivating an authentic sense of curiosity and wonder. My colleagues and I have learned that assuming a stance of curiosity helps us open up to new and differing perspectives and supports a more collaborative, creative and productive work environments. Yet when we attempt to use these same notions at family gatherings it can be a very tall order. Why?

Perhaps because we are so certain our perspectives -- on immigration Ferguson, fracking, global warming, taxes, gay marriage, Cuba, etc. -- are right. Not only are we right, we are certain we are more enlightened than those with whom we disagree. We're stuck -- incurious, unyielding and humorless. (We certainly would not want to be seated next to us at dinner!)

Be your "best self"

So what to do? How do we break our self-righteous stance? First, we can remind ourselves of whom we aspire to be in the world. I do not aspire to be an unyielding, humorless jerk. I do, however, aspire to be thoughtful, loving and respectful. I want people to know they are fully seen and heard in my presence. I want to be a life-long learner, a person who embraces wonder. When I remind myself of these things -- preferably before dinner begins -- I invariably talk a lot less, listen, and learn a lot more and have more fun.

I also confess my doubts in these conversations. This can feel very risky, especially when it comes to topics about which I am most sure and most passionate. Confessing doubts in those moments feels like I'm abandoning my principles or revealing a weakness to my opponent. But, I remind myself: this person is not my opponent. She is my great Aunt Louise (for you, perhaps it's your stepfather Geraldo). If I listen deeply to what is being said and what is left unspoken, I invariably gain perspective and insight. And I do not have to agree with them in order for this to occur.

But what if all of that fails? I've tried to be curious, I have reminded myself of my best self and remained open to wonder, and I still find I have created escalating, exasperating conversations, defending my position and jockeying to make points. What then?

Use humor!

Humor is a great lifeline back to curiosity -- and self-deprecating humor is especially powerful. It reminds me and my conversation-mate (note to self, not "opponent") that this discussion is between people -- people who are multidimensional, unsure, funny, struggling, good-willed, respectful, flawed. Human.

Remember the goal is to understand, not to convince. If you go into a conversation with the quixotic goal of persuading Cousin Marta that climate change is real, you'll likely fail and most assuredly will be angry by dessert. But, if you assume a stance of curiosity, you might actually learn something, including what leads Cousin Marta to her point of view. Wonder also absolves you of the self-imposed need to know everything, as well as the need to show others that you do. Relieving that pressure is a gift you can give yourself.

So, before sitting down at your holiday table, take a hard-earned tip from me. Draw a small question mark on the palm of your hand and a smiley face. Look at them occasionally to remind yourself to stay curious and laugh. Remember your best self. The result? Pure magic! Imagine, a family holiday gathering infused with wonder, reverence and joy.

It's the season of miracles after all.