Love the holidays, but hate those family gatherings? Do you find yourself praying for a “new” family member just so your family might be on best behavior that day? (You know it won’t last, but you can dream.) Are there family members that always seem to want to start a fight, or can’t let that embarrassing moment from 1971 go?

Typically, it is the same thing year after year. Most families have a couple of topics that are almost as predictable as “pass the turkey and dressing”. So why do we go into the Holidays expecting anything different? Short of family counseling know that family dynamics rarely change without a conscious effort to do so. Take a few minutes and plan your response ahead of time, so you are less likely to react. We are very good at rehearsing what we want to say, not so good at writing a new script and planning what we should say. Remember, this planning includes how you say it too. People remember how we make them feel long after they remember what we said.

Seven Nonverbal Strategies for a Stress-less Holiday

Strategy One: No response can be the best response. A smile and a change of subject or your location might be all that is needed.

Strategy Two: Have a great memory already selected, what I call “go to your happy place” ready. When that stressor moment begins, think of the happiest memories you have. (Hey, you really can only partially listen, you already know the story….) Some of my happiest memories are the births of my sons, each time I think of those, I smile automatically and begin to relax. Holding those happy thoughts changes your body language and the thoughts around the current situation. Yes, we really can “head-fake” ourselves out of a negative reaction.

Strategy Three: Have a buddy. Let your buddy know how to intervene when “that family member starts….” Have them intervene by asking a question or having a task for you.

Strategy Four: Use positive gestures of relationship to set the tone. Using an open, upward facing palm, gesture with your forearm and hand to the person most likely to start the negative situation. While you slowly gesture - remember palm up and open - comment on how wonderful the decorations are this year. As you get to the word wonderful be sure to have your fingers of the open palm gesture pointing directly at the likely offender. You have just nonverbally called them wonderful. Continue the day assigning all the positive words you say, you’ll be amazed how it can reset the tone.

Strategy Four (and half): The opposite is true, you want to “aim” negativity AWAY from the person you’re talking to—no matter what you’re talking about. You can hurt feelings with your gestures and not even know it. For example, right after Thanksgiving a coaching client was telling me about how he hurt his aunt’s feelings. He was speaking about an event at work. “What a jerk!” he said, while widely gesturing about “That jerk!” Before long, his auntie wasn’t listening. He said to me, “She looked like she had been insulted.” She had—he had just called his aunt a jerk, nonverbally.

Strategy Five: Many situations can be diffused (or inflamed) by intentionally using your voice. Besides the words you choose, the emphasis, tone, volume, speed play a crucial role in how someone listens, interprets and reacts to what we say. (Remember, “the happy place,” it can change your voice pattern too.)

Strategy Six: Your facial expressions tell the world what you are feeling. Monitor those reaction facial expressions such as the ever so easy and favorite eye roll or pouty frown Research with botox patients has shown that blocking a frown can really change how you think and feel. No botox needed—try this little experiment, look up, throw your arms up to the sky and try and frown—your body movements are tied to your emotions and your emotions are tied to your movements.

Strategy Seven: My favorite and the most powerful — your breathing. Train yourself to maintain low, abdominal (natural) breathing. The more you experience the calming effect that low, abdominal breathing has on your body, brain and voice, the easier it is to do in all situations. The goal is to maintain balanced breathing even while others around you are not. Our breath supports all our non-verbals; most importantly, our voice. It is our breathing to which people react when they hear our voice patterns. How you are breathing at the time determines how you will be perceived. When you and the listener are breathing low and comfortably you are in rapport. If either of you are breathing shallow or rapid, there has been a break in rapport, a distraction or threat. If you remind yourself to breath comfortably the situation will diffuse even quicker.

People really do pay more attention to what your body says than what your mouth does. That’s why it’s so important to be intentional and plan your strategies before the gatherings begins.

Author's Bio: 

Sharon Sayler, MBA, is a Communications Success Strategist. Sharon trains professionals on how to become stronger, more influential communicators and leaders. Her latest book What Your Body Says (and how to master the message) is available wherever books are sold and get an autographed copy at