For some, family gatherings are a great time – with relatives getting together to catch up and eat, drink a little and be merry.

Then there’s the rest of us. There’s our sister who voted for you-know-who. There’s that uncle who always becomes belligerent by you-know-when. And there’s our in-laws who never fail to bring up you-know-what. It all adds up to making “the most wonderful times of the year” the most stressful. And it makes you feel terrible.

The good news is that we can learn skills to turn conversations around and avoid misunderstandings. And that can make us, and those around us, feel better.

Research shows we need healthy relationships to be in good health. (In fact, not having them is almost as bad for your health as smoking!) And healthy relationships depend on healthy communication. That’s not something we’re born with. Rather, good communication is something we learn. And luckily, if you originally learned negative communication, you can change that.

First you have to be aware of how you communicate. Then, you need to practice swapping out negative communication skills with positive ones. The more you practice, the more automatic it becomes. Here’s what to work on:

  1. Watching your body language. Listeners get more meaning from your body language than from what you are saying. Notice if your tone of voice is calm or harsh. Pay attention to your facial expression. Are you making eye contact? Are you smiling?
  2. Using active listening. Listening is different from hearing. Hearing is passive. Listening is active. To actively listen, repeat or paraphrase what someone says. Ask questions if you’re not sure what someone means to say.
  3. Assuming good intent, and seeking to understand. Minimize your assumptions and consider that someone may have a different view point – which is ok! Ask questions for clarity, but don’t interrogate. For example, instead of saying “Did you finish that project?”, ask “How is that project going?”
  4. Being assertive instead of passive-aggressive. Being passive-aggressive can mean indirectly expressing negative feelings and being uncooperative. For example, instead of saying “We can try, but I doubt it will work”, say “Can we brainstorm some other ways to do this?” When you are being assertive, you use ‘I’ instead of ‘you’ statements and provide input when it is requested. And when you get involved, you share the stage rather than taking it over.
  5. Being proactive in preventing and resolving conflicts. Pay attention to when you sense that there may be a difference of opinion. Be sure your body language shows respect. Stay calm and think a few moments before you speak. And ask questions without judging an idea or the person. It’s important to get to a place where you both agree on what a problem is. Sometimes the problem will even melt away as you’re getting to this place because there were basic misunderstandings.

Practicing these healthy communication skills is one way that you can build up your emotional resilience and ability to bounce back from and cope with stress without giving in, giving up or breaking down.