"Some people have issues with emotional resolution when they're faced with high stress and high tension situations," said Diane Wilson, a psychotherapist and neurofeedback specialist in Chicago. "A lot of people are up against the same thing — so we slide into our worst patterns such as impulsive talking or not filtering topics. And some are more vulnerable to it than others."
"A partner or spouse will get upset if they think you are trying to control them, so it's important to make a joint effort to discuss the concerns and come up with a strategy ahead of time," she said.
And passing the blame won't help.
"If they say, 'It's not my family,' or 'These aren't my friends,' you need to tell that person how you feel when they act a certain way," said Meghan Keane, editorial director of Thegloss.com. "I do think it's safest to talk about this when it's not in the heat of the moment because it's hard to control someone mid-conversation. It's best to get some strategies together so you can feel like you're prepared."
Here are some tips to managing tough social situations this holiday season:
Assign a task. "I'm a big fan of coming up with random favors you need to stop a confrontation from escalating," Keane said. "You can do this with what we call the 'party pick', which is where you basically step in-between the two people who are having the conversation you want to end, and say, 'Can you get me something from downstairs?'"
Create cues. "Decide on some party safe words that you and your partner can remember," Wilson said. "If one of you uses that word, it should be a cue to the partner to either not go there, or to change the subject. You can also use physical nudges under the table if they aren't taking the hint, but words are less obvious."
Start mini-conversations. "If there's a large table, and someone is making people uncomfortable, start up a conversation at your end of the table to divert the focus," Keane said. "My mother did that this year by telling a really bad joke and it jump-started all these other conversations so we didn't have to listen to the person who was complaining."
Have flexible seating. "When you have different members who don't get along so well, it's better to have loose seating so everyone can easily exit a conversation with a, 'I'm getting a dessert,' or 'Anybody need a glass of wine?'" Keane said.
Step away. "If you are uncomfortable and nobody is doing anything about it, just remove yourself from the table and take care of yourself," Wilson said. "The brain sometimes needs more time to process — so finding a place to cool off is really helpful."