(MCT) CHICAGO — Hal Shorey isn't naming names, but he distinctly remembers the holiday dinner at which a certain relative took issue with his hand towels.
We've all been there. You toil and sweat and primp and prepare, all in the hopes of presenting a picture-perfect, criticism-proof festival of food and family, only to have the perennial curmudgeon show up and rain all over your hand towels. Or dinner rolls. Or table manners.
The specific trigger isn't all that important, since it's likely just a vehicle for the crabby guest's misplaced angst. How you deal with it, though, is huge.
We talked to Shorey, a practicing psychologist and assistant professor at Widener University's Institute for Graduate Clinical Psychology in Chester, Pa., and other experts on how to handle the guest who shows up every year, without fail, ready to rub out all traces of holiday cheer.
"The first thing is to never assume you know what's driving another person's behavior," Shorey says. "No matter what's coming out of their mouth. If someone's telling you your bathroom towels are awful, don't assume they actually have a problem with your bathroom towels."
You can, however, assume they'll have a problem. With something. Here's how to handle it.
Plan ahead. "The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior," Shorey says.
Set your expectations accordingly.
"People have dreams about who they want their relatives to be," Shorey says. "'Maybe this is the year mom's going to validate me!' 'Maybe this will be the time grandma likes how I raise my kids!' Probably not."
Before the actual gathering, have a conversation with your partner and/or trusted confidants, and prepare yourselves for what's about to befall you.
"'Strategy' is one of my favorite words in relationships," says practicing psychotherapist Carl Alasko, author of "Say This, Not That: A Foolproof Guide to Effective Interpersonal Communication" (Tarcher).
"Days before the guests arrive, get together and have a guessing game. 'What surprise is Bob going to bring us this year? What do you think he'll say about the turkey? Let's imagine how he'll act when he walks in the door.'
"This helps prevent the dreaded 'reactive response' — the physiological body response of elevated heart rate, raised blood pressure and a bunch of other chemical reactions that are triggered when we feel attacked," Alasko says. "We're designed that way; there's nothing we can do about it. But you can minimize it by being ready for it and recognizing ahead of time what you're in for."
It can help to have some canned, neutral responses in place.
"I coach people, especially when they're dealing with their parents, to write down little comebacks that will defuse a situation," Shorey says.
"Sometimes it's just repeating back what the person just said to you. 'Oh! You don't like my towels?' Said with a smile, that can be a real benefit."
But calm and neutral are hard to fake in the heat of the moment.
"As soon as the decision is made that this person is coming, that's when you come up with your strategies," Alasko says. "Once you're in the defensive mode, 'Look! She's frowning at my table decorations!' then you're in reactive mode, and you lose control."
Don't take the bait. There's very likely nothing you did to invite this person's wrath, so do your best to not take it personally.
"It's not you, and it's not your food, and it's not your other guests," says Terri Orbuch, research professor at the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research and author of "Five Simple Steps to Take Your Marriage from Good to Great" (Delacorte Press). "This person is most likely in a foul mood all the time and not a courteous guest in other situations either."
Don't be yet another casualty in his or her war on good cheer.
"It's important that you don't try to change them or exacerbate the drama," Orbuch says. "That's just going to allow the person to ruin your holiday or ruin your gathering or ruin your mood. Don't give them control over how you feel."
Your body, of course, might have other ideas.
"Your nervous system's fight-or-flight syndrome is always ready to sabotage your best intentions," Alasko says. "The reality is that your body is designed not for happiness, necessarily, but for keeping the species going. What does it care if a reactive response is not your friend?"
Take some deep breaths, and walk away if you need to.
"It's all about keeping sane and controlled and holding on to your power," Alasko says. "Fight-or-flight creates actual wars. And it certainly creates wars within families and relationships. Be aware of how truly dangerous that is before you get swept away into another debilitating, embarrassing argument."
Possibly over hand towels.
Don't go for the heart of the matter. It may be tempting to pause, mid-meal, and ask your troublesome guest, once and for all, what's really wrong. (Politely, of course.)
"Of all the possible things a person can do in that situation, I can't think of a worse one," says Alasko. "'Boy, Aunt Margaret. The holidays really are difficult for you.' Where are you going to go with that? Do you have five hours for her to tell you why? Do you even care? It's insensitive, and it's insulting."
A large gathering is not the place to probe deeply, even if you think the person needs to.
"I never open something up if I don't think I can sew it shut," says Shorey. "Otherwise you leave people with emotional upset that's going to masquerade as some other issue next time you see them.
"We all have childhood experiences that shape our personalities," he continues. "If you were brought up in a family where you always felt subtly shut down or rejected or you weren't able to be unhappy, it all gets hard-wired into your emotional system. You go to a holiday gathering, and it all becomes activated. You're not going to undo that at dinner."
If you truly want to help, offer to meet the person a few days after the holiday.
"Later, when it's just you and the person, you can decide whether to share your feelings about their behavior," Orbuch says. "And it should always be about their behavior or attitude bothering you, not about them bothering you.
"People say, 'Why should I give her a pass? She's acting terrible,'" Orbuch says. "Don't think of it as giving her a pass. You're just pausing the drama for the moment and choosing to deal with it at a later date."
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