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How to handle holiday family feuds like a seasoned crisis negotiator

When Tom Hart teaches "de-escalating techniques" to police officers, first responders and social workers enrolled in his crisis intervention program, he likes to throw on a clip from National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation. The part where Chevy Chase's Clark W. Griswold loses it, taking his dysfunctional family hostage in a "full-blown, four-alarm holiday emergency" after his annual bonus is quashed and his tree gets incinerated.

"The Griswold clip is a good guy having a really bad day," says Hart, a retired Durham Regional Police detective who now heads up Canadian Critical Incident Inc., from Pickering, Ont., training crisis negotiators. "You bring in these stressors and Clark just blows it there and locks everybody in. That's how easy that situation gets right out of hand when you have a person who doesn't have any coping skills left to deal with the stress of, say, Christmas."

Christmas dinner can be explosive: You combine group dynamics and big egos with unrealistic expectations, then douse it all in booze. Don't want to go Griswold? The Globe presents its Negotiators' Guide to Surviving the Holidays.

Jori Bolton for The Globe and Mail

Commanding your turf

What happens when you get a stream of matriarchs in your kitchen, doing up their aprons to scrutinize your stuffing?

Harold Lenfesty, a commercial mediator for lawyers, CEOs and boards of directors who teaches negotiation skills at the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies, uses the “power, rights and interests” model: while it’s your power in the kitchen, it’s also in your best interest to keep guests happy. “We try and involve people without creating a major traffic jam or conflict in the kitchen,” says Lenfesty, who has seven children and grandchildren. “Maybe that means family members bringing their favourite dish. My brother is particularly good with sweet potatoes.”

Kent Highnam, manager at the Justice Institute of British Columbia’s Centre for Conflict Resolution recommends “I language.” For example: “I need the room here to create my culinary masterpiece. How about I invite you to the living room?” Highnam, who teaches law enforcement officials, first responders, teachers and executives how to productively engage in conflict, suggests writing short scripts in your head: “If you know that there’s going to be a challenging situation like your mother taking the spatula out of your hand while you’re cooking, those are scenarios you can anticipate.”

Jori Bolton for The Globe and Mail

Politics at the table

You’ve had the first toast: Thinking of getting into it with Uncle Bob, whose political views are diametrically opposed to your own?

“Just leave it alone. Don’t go there,” says Lenfesty. If a Rob Ford kickup proves irresistible, Lenfesty urges brevity. “If you’re going to get into an ideological discussion including politics, sex and religion, keep it short: 90 seconds is about the maximum.” Political arguments tend to get louder and more repetitive with time, Lenfesty says. “The longer they go, the wider the chasm.”

Every family has its “anti-social” figure, the one who bores easily and relishes drama: “There’s probably a reason why you only see Uncle Bob once a year,” says Hart. He recommends giving this type a task. “If it’s Christmas Day, get Uncle Bob collecting wrapping paper. If he becomes confrontational, don’t be critical or challenge him. Never insult their intelligence.” If all else fails, Hart points out that: “Removing them from the situation is helpful: ‘I got this really nice Winston Churchill cigar, let’s go have this in the backyard.’ ”

Jori Bolton for The Globe and Mail

Drop the iPhone

Teenagers and parents alike are guilty of this one: texting from their laps, smartphones concealed beneath the Christmas runner. How to curb screen time on Dec. 25, when your nearest and dearest are right in front of you?

“When I was a kid, I had an uncle who liked to drink. But he had one rule: on Christmas, he didn’t drink,” recalls Lenfesty. “That would be a good rule for electronics: Just put them away. If you’re getting a new PlayStation or Xbox, put a timer on it.”

The key, all three experts agree, is to verbalize and agree on a moratorium before everyone goes zombie, their faces bathed in blue electronic light. “Before it gets to the boiling point, it’s a good idea to start the conversation about needs earlier rather than later,” Highnam says. “Anger is not a good teacher.”

Jori Bolton for The Globe and Mail

Here’s your hat, what’s your hurry?

You’ve cleared the table, unplugged the tree lights and tucked away the scotch. Still Uncle Bob’s slurred support for Ford Nation will not abate. “Booting people out’s a real problem. You involve drinking and your guests lose their concept of time,” Hart says.

The crisis negotiator says this one’s about “influence” – collude with a reliable guest who will then make his or her exit, unbidden. “Once somebody leaves and you start blowing candles out, they all pick up the hint.”

Highnam, who says he often uses his negotiation skills on his own family, recommends a pinch of humour: “I need to be fresh tomorrow morning because I’m performing brain surgery. Let’s continue the party next week.”

Follow me on Twitter: @ZosiaBielski

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