I've asked hundreds of people to list the 5 top stressors that get in the way of peace, goodwill, and good digestion, as the holidays get in gear. First, the top five, (and in no particular order): pleasing others, finances, having to say "no," finding time for oneself, and being with family.

You may have others to add to the list. However, these all seem to be universal.

And the biggest source of holiday stress, the one that got the most votes is 'ta dah'...being with family.

Since I've spent much of my career as a leadership coach researching how the family dynamics we grew up with shape the way we respond at work, it's no surprise to me that this most powerful organization, the original one that we were born into, tops the stress list.


It has to do with obligations, traditions and memories. Look, family relationships are complicated, even the best and most secure of families have differences and disappointments to contend with.

So here are ways you can prepare to have less stress and breeze through the dinners and the gifts and the moments of frustration, better than ever.

It means doing some things differently, or, as wise Lao Tzu, who never sat through a Thanksgiving dinner yet knew the relationship rules said, "If you don't change direction you may end up where you are heading."

Here are key stress triggers and what to do:

1. Unhappy Memories

There's always a tendency for flashbacks to old disappointing moments that cause us to react as if we are still five or seven or twelve.

What to do: Be prepared to use my 5 second breath process. Deep breaths and say "that was then and this is now" to re-calibrate. It works.

2. Tough relatives

They may not change so you must. See the sad, scared, child who did not learn how to respond effectively.

What to do: Give lots of slack and find something, go ahead, you can find one thing no matter how small, to acknowledge about them. Do this before they can start to complain or challenge. This is called a "pattern interrupt" and works at least 80% of the time.

3. Boring traditions

Same old meal, no deviations. Same old jokes, no deviation. Same old stories, no deviation.

What to do: Bring one small new food with. It can simply be dark chocolate bars or some exotic teas. Offer them without expectation. Someone will join you and then who knows, maybe someone else. See this as your own research project in incremental change.

4. New traditions

You may like the comfort of the same meal, same jokes, same stories at the family table. However, others are demanding new ways. You are out of your comfort zone.

What to do: Be proactive. Make sure you talk with the host and find out what will be new and different. This is time for compromise. Use your negotiation skills to discuss how turkey and tofu can harmonize. Ask for what you need and give room for others to also have what they need. Watch your reactions change. Great time to put those muscles to work that see change as a positive.

5. Unrealistic expectations

Hope lives eternal in all of us for the perfect family gathering. You know, where everyone is on their best behavior and sweet thoughts flow from mouths like beautiful rainbows. It starts with that hope until suddenly defenses come apart when the wine and the time together causes feathers to ruffle.

What to do: Use diversion. Have a few good, neutral stories you can tell about, just about anything except the family. If necessary, take a break. Get out of the room and do the 5 second breath exercise in another room. Then come back and know just about every other family is having those moments too.

Family relationships are complicated. Yup, I already said that and it needs to be underlined. They are the foundation for who we are whether we like it or not. The more you can prepare yourself to accept them, warts and all, the better you can cope with the holidays.

Pass the turkey, um, and the tofu please.