It can be tempting to blame your quirky, stubborn, or disagreeable family members for disputes that often arise at holiday gatherings. But your family isn’t entirely to blame. Four underlying conditions, which all conveniently begin with the letter A, make holiday gatherings susceptible to annoying arguments and contentious conversations.

Audience. Adding people is bad for disputes because extra people increase the scope of the argument and the complexity of managing the disagreement. More people adds variability—you don’t know what they might say or whose side they might take—and increases the likelihood that damage from a failed conversation will spread.

Awkwardness. Holiday gatherings are filled with moments of awkwardness as people get reacquainted. Aunt Sally asks us about a boyfriend who’s no longer in the picture, we ask Cousin Jimmy about a job he hasn’t held in months, and Grandma wants to know when we’re planning to have children. Unless we’re careful, it’s easy for an awkward moment to escalate into a damaging one.

Alcohol. Booze is often present at holiday gatherings, but alcohol isn’t a good lubricant for contentious discussions or disputes because it loosens the verbal restraint that’s essential for keeping conversations civilized. Don’t let your tipple topple your conversations.

Atypical. People are off their routines during the holidays: adults aren’t working, kids aren’t in school, we’re in somebody else’s home, or many relatives may be in ours. And when we’re somewhat off-kilter, our conversations are also off-kilter, making it more difficult to handle the emotional load that comes with contentious conversations.

The four structural factors listed above make the holidays ripe for damaging disagreements because these underlying conditions often cause small disagreements to ignite into major disputes. Remember that your family isn’t completely to blame for the quarrels that frequently accompany holiday gatherings. Smart communicators avoid conflict and duck disputes at the holidays, when the potential for damage is unusually high.

For additional strategies for keeping holiday conversations civilized and for avoiding unnecessary conflict at the holidays and beyond, consider gifting yourself and your family members a copy of Start Talking, Start Communicating. Signed copies are available online from Brace Books.

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