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Keeping holidays conflict-free: Tips from a negotiation expert

It's holiday season, a time of joyful family get-togethers and warm companionship with loved ones. Or is it?

Holidays can be extra stressful on families for any number of reasons: long-standing feuds, perceived slights, tension because of changes in relationships--the list goes on.

While the easy path might be to ignore the grudge-holding elephant in the room, Jim Hilbert, executive director of William Mitchell College of Law's Center for Negotiation & Justice, suggests another approach: Take on those difficult conversations head-on, without causing a big scene.

He also suggests not forgetting who you're talking to.

"These are important relationships that require effort and care," he says. "There are lots of reasons to stay mad, but you have even better reasons to manage your emotions and try working it out. Your family relationships are larger and more important than any petty grievance."

Hilbert says if you yourself demonstrate the ability to make changes and improvements, people will likely follow your lead and work on doing it too. And, he says, you can put your history to good use.

"Because your relationship with your siblings or parents or in-laws is long-standing, sometimes you can draw on that past history, even rebuild trust," he says. "You'd be surprised at what you can accomplish if you take the positive parts of the past and put them to use."

Here are a few of Hilbert's general tips for approaching potential conflict. They might look simple enough, but aren't always our first inclination.

1. Look at the situation as objectively as possible. It is important to manage your emotions and try to think clearly. Don't jump to conclusions about other people's motives, for example.

2. Prepare. Think about what you really care about in the situation and what you hope to accomplish.

3. Think about the other person's perspective. Find out their concerns, even if you think you know already. Everyone appreciates being heard and understood.

4. Keep an open mind. As you start thinking about what you want, don't get stuck on one particular solution. Think about your overall goals and be open to other ways of satisfying those needs.

5. Look for ideas that work for the other person as well. Balance your needs with the needs of others and think about how you can address both.

6. Think before you speak. Even if you follow steps 1-5, everything might not go as you've planned. Before responding to what someone has said, ask yourself, "Am I about to make things better or worse?"