What is it about Christmas that has the propensity to bring out the worst in people? It is well documented that the Christmas holidays often precede a spike in the number of relationship breakdowns and marriage failures – more so it seems than any other time of year, but why? Even my own world did not escape conflict this Christmas as I witnessed neighbours caught in a storm of anger and retribution: a nineteen year old out of control on a cocktail of alcohol, drugs and unresolved hurts, and family members failing to turn up for lunch. The expectations of goodwill to all men seemed to tumble faster than a falling Christmas tree! This phenomenon of conflict breaking out in homes up and down the UK gave me cause to analyse this annual occurrence, and see what lessons, if any, may exist for us professional peacemakers.

Sitting atop the tree of conflict were, it seems, unmet expectations. When families regroup for Christmas there is an expectation of what will happen, who will see whom, what will be said, done, given or received. When the inherent flaws of human nature inevitably derail these expectations, tension can build, often disproportionately. In many cases, there are also what I call the “white elephants” in the room—the unspoken historical issues that sit in families for generations. Often ignored or unaddressed, these issues can quietly pollute the core of family relationships creating bitterness or resentment. So it is no surprise that at times of high expectation, the unsuspecting visitor or relative can accidentally pull an emotional Christmas cracker, and bang; the elephants stampede around the room as old wounds are opened and buried emotions run high once more.

Financial pressures came close in second place. We live in a material world driven by marketing initiatives designed to make us buy, or feel guilty if we don’t buy, the latest toy or gadget for our loved ones, especially the children. In the USA and Europe, many families were feeling the financial pinch this winter and were simply unable to afford expensive gifts or glamorous parties and meals. Yet the relentless pressure to keep up appearances went on for many, a sad indicator that one’s wealth and material possessions are seen as a reflection of who one is.

In considering a few causes of winter conflict, it became apparent that unmet expectations seemed to top the list. For those of us who work with business clients particularly, encouraging clear and concise lines of communication to manage expectations must surely be a priority. When staff threaten industrial action or a walk-out, is it really because of the change in working hours, or is it because they genuinely can’t afford to live on the renegotiated wages they are expected to? In managing teams, it is often noticed how individual expectations go unmet due to lack of leadership training, which leads to dissatisfaction and disputes among the workforce.

Leadership in the family or in the workplace carries a lot of responsibility. It’s not just about managing and organising the day-to-day tasks, it’s also about managing the expectations, needs and wishes of your family members or employees. What do they think, feel and need - and what can you do? There is an old military adage that says, “assumption is the mother of all cock-ups.” Assuming your family or staff think, need or believe in something is flawed thinking. Talk to them. Explore, encourage and get them to open up, air difficult issues, don’t judge them and be ready to accept negative words without responding. Essentially, be quick to listen and slow to speak. By creating an environment of open and honest communication, assumptions can be laid to rest, expectations better understood and the potential for conflict reduced.

by Howard Stern

Operating primarily in the UK and Europe, Howard works exclusively in conflict and dispute resolution. His work follows a 25 year career in project management, training and development. Howard is a member of the British Civil Mediation Council, accredited by the Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution as a mediator, and affiliated with various NGOs. His love of travel and the great outdoors has taken him to many places, sometimes in pursuit of his wider professional interests in international politics, and to explore the global pressures facing society as it copes with rapid population growth.