Dealing With Difficult Relatives at Christmas

Back in 2003 I was interviewed for an article about dealing with difficult relatives at Christmas. I have been asked to re-publish that article, as it is nearly Christmas and some people found the advice handy.

Last week I ran a teleseminar on Feedback. One of the topics that came up from one of the participants was how to give feedback to a colleague who had bullied someone else in a meeting (of Directors) and was virtually boasting about it to others.

I have also had requests for help from people trying to deal with difficult behaviours at home. For all of you, here is the original article plus a few extra bits.

With Christmas Day falling on a Thursday this year, a leading behaviourist says the season of goodwill could actually become a battleground with families being packed together for up to four days.

Nancy Slessenger says, “Christmas is an artificial experience. It bears little resemblance to normal living. It is the one time of year when two or three generations can be packed in a house together. They start with good intentions, but tempers can flare, often sparked by trivial arguments.

“Instead of using the carving knife on the turkey, your thoughts turn to your husband – or his mother!”

But Nancy says there are ways of avoiding such extreme action and simple tricks to prevent family rows from becoming permanent rifts.

Nancy, author of ‘Understanding Misunderstandings’, says “We all know what it’s like to be frazzled in the kitchen when a family member, quite often an in-law, comes in and tells us how to cook the meal!

“Don’t shout. Ignore their advice but turn the tables by peppering them with questions such as — ‘So, what are your thoughts on stuffing? Home made or bought? And what do you cook the roast potatoes in, lard, goose fat, corn oil or duck fat? What do you think of Delia’s recipe? And do you still use Tupperware like the Queen?

“Pretty soon they’ll be sick of your questions and you won’t be bothered ever again.”

Nancy also has advice about handling the Christmas moaning Minnies.

“Don’t try and jolly them out of their misery – use the technique of being even more negative than they are!

“If they complain about the turkey say, ‘Yes, I agree it’s dreadful. We’ll all probably get food poisoning. Let’s throw it away and have some toast instead.’

“Or if they moan about their presents say, ‘Okay, we’ll take them to Oxfam next week if you don’t want to keep them.’

“Adopt this negative technique and they’ll soon stop moaning. If you try and be positive with them, you will make them even more negative.”

Some Additional Advice

That was the article, here’s an extra tip to keep you sane.

Bullies At Christmas

If you have relatives that tend to bully others, set clear boundaries. Be straight about the rules and what is acceptable and what is not acceptable. Bullies are people who are behaving like five-year-olds and need to be treated as such, till they learn how to behave like adults.

The reason they are bullying you is because you are treating them as though they are grown up and allowing them to behave badly.

What’s really sad is that they need love and attention but just don’t know how to get it. Everything they do means they get less love and attention, which paradoxically means they need more.

I spent five hours once coaching a man who terrified his work colleagues. He shouted at me and got very upset. After several hours he complained that ‘no one ever helped him with his problems’.

I asked him ‘I’ve been here since 9am, three hours ago. What do you think I’ve been trying to do?’ He looked at the floor. ‘After all the effort I’ve put in this morning, how do you think I felt when you said that nobody every helped you?’

His face went red and he looked at me and said ‘Sometimes I just need a hug.’ I was completely astonished and noticed that he was near to tears.

What To Say

Take the bully by the horns and be clear on what the boundaries are, just like you would with a five-year-old:

‘You can have your presents when you have finished clearing the table. Only people who help out get their presents.’

It will make your life a whole lot easier over the festive season.

To go with this blog there is s special offer, valid till 4th January 2010. This coupon gives you 25% off any of our products that help you to deal with ‘difficult people’. They are all on this page of our site:

To get the discount, just put this into the box asking for the coupon code:  DIFFICULT RELATIVES

Then click the ‘apply’ button.

Let me know what you have to put up with at Christmas and please share your tips on how to do it.

Sir Gerry Does It Again

Last week I watched the first part of another series by Sir Gerry Robinson. This time he was trying to fix Dementia care homes.


He mentioned that his own father had suffered from this awful disease. We were taken to the kind of home we imagine in our worst nightmares; elderly people sat in a lounge staring bleakly into space in silence for hours.

At one point a woman cried out for help for half an hour, and nobody came. Another issue was the way the owners had taken away meals from the staff. The staff are people on almost the minimum wage who work 10 hour shifts.

Let Them Eat Cake

We saw one scene where the particular owner grilled a member of the kitchen staff on half a loaf of bread she had found that had been labelled apparently for the night shift. She was clearly convinced that the crime committed was that this bread had been left for the member of staff not the residents.

Another owner spoke indignantly saying he didn’t want the kitchen staff having to bother with food for the carers when they were supposed to be looking after the residents. This was a man living in a £4m home.

It Doesn’t Have To Be Like This

We then saw a very different home in Warwickshire. The residents were taking part in all kinds of activities; many of the normal daily routines that keep any house going: ironing, setting the tables and so on. It was a huge difference.

We must always bear in mind that this is TV, but even so, as my old friend Elaine would say ‘A blind man on a galloping horse could see that,’

The Manager

We met the manager, a cheerful friendly but above all enthusiastic man, who clearly cared. His approach seemed simple and straightforward.

We compared this to the poor woman managing one of the previous homes. She had had no training in this kind of care. She showed Sir Gerry the forms and files she had to keep on all the residents. These listed out all kinds of statistics designed to make sure they were safe. But as he pointed out, there was nothing about the quality of life.

There seemed to be no notes on the previous lives of the residents – nothing to give the staff clues that they could use in talking to the residents.

Quality of life

There was none. It had been sacrificed on the altar of safety. On a lovely sunny day the residents were all locked inside, for their own safety and we heard that you just couldn’t let them out.

As you can imagine, in the Warwickshire home, things were different. We saw the residents planting pansies and a man who was clearly very disabled in some kind of chair using what seemed to be his only working limb to paint a piece of furniture. He was clearly very happy to be doing something useful.

We saw lunchtime in Warwickshire where staff were sat enjoying their lunch with the residents. At the other homes we saw people being fed.

No Such Thing As A Free Lunch?

When Sir Gerry asked some of the disgruntled staff whose lunches had been withdrawn why they stayed, the answer was simple. It was because they really cared for the residents, in spite of the way they had been treated themselves.

What was heart-rending to me was that these very dedicated people were not given the skills or the opportunities to look after the people they cared so much about in a way that would really make those people happy.

A Free Lunch

We learned that it was no more expensive to run the home in this much more effective way.

And it’s so often the case. In fact, I would go as far as to say that running things well is almost always cheaper than doing it badly. If you find yourself cutting lunches and arguing over half a loaf of bread you really need to question what is going on.

When Gerry suggested to the ‘bread woman’ that she get some tips from the Warwickshire home it did not go down well. She responded aggressively and clearly felt threatened. She didn’t want to be ‘told what to do’.

Sometimes when people are in this situation they just can’t believe there is a solution and assume people are out to get them. Whereas Sir Gerry was just trying to help.


As yet there is no cure. But there are things you can do to reduce the risks of getting dementia. Getting exercise, eating fresh fruit, vegetables and fish are all linked to lower risk of dementia. Vitamins C and E also reduce it.

Looking after your brain is another way to slow the onset of dementia. This means you need to keep mentally and physically active. This is not particularly recent research, yet the people in two of the homes featured on the programme were left with nothing to do and no stimulation at all for hours every day.

We know that, when you do this to any brain, within a matter of hours there is deterioration. This is why it’s so important to keep people active after operations and brain damage. Yes, they need lots of rest, but they also need to get their brains working.

Marian Diamond

In her groundbreaking research of many years ago now, Marian Diamond took some rats and put them into different environments. One group of 12 rats had toys to play with and other rats to communicate with in their cage. Another group of rats was put in isolation with nothing to do.

At the end of the experiment, there was a measurable difference in their brains. Those of the rats in the groups (the ‘enriched environment’) had more connections between the neurons than the rats that had been kept on their own.

I remember seeing Marian Diamond, who is Professor of Anatomy at Berkeley, show us diagrams of the neurons from the ‘enriched’ brains and the ‘impoverished’ brains. The difference was quite astonishing. The ‘enriched’ neurons had a forest of branches linking them. The others had a few twigs.

I met Marian Diamond several times at various conferences. One time, I went down to the gym early in the morning (about 6am) and there she was, already powering up and down the lanes in the pool. She then leapt out and did her weight training. She was easily 70 at that time.

We left the gym together and climbed up the stairs (about five floors) to our rooms. You can see some excerpts of her being interviewed here:

The Good Home

At the home in Warwickshire, they are helping their residents to keep those connections between neurons going in spite of their illness. In the other homes the problems are just compounded. But it’s not that difficult to do better.

And that’s the key point from Sir Gerry. You don’t have to be unpleasant or mean. Running things well, and making a profit can be done in a way that is fun and good for everyone. And it’s not hard. Sometimes it’s just a question of having the courage to ask for and accept some help.

If you are in the UK, and would like to watch it, the second and final episode of ‘Can Gerry Robinson Fix Dementia Care Homes?’ is on BBC2 tonight at 9pm (15 Dec). Enjoy.   Let me know what you thin.

Increase Your Efficiency With Little Effort

Recently I talked about being optimistic and how that could improve things. We’ve been doing it here and I certainly do feel more optimistic as a result.

So here’s another very simple thing you can do that really makes a difference. These days it’s called ‘mindfulness’ and is cropping up everywhere at the moment. However, it’s not new. It’s coming up again now because (after thousands of years) there is now the neuroscience to explain why it works which I suspect persuades those who thought it was just ‘fuzzy fluffy stuff’.

But in case you aren’t familiar with it, or would like a refresher, here it is. There are many different definitions. My understanding is that mindfulness is about being aware and in the moment.

The benefits of developing ‘mindfulness’

These include:

  • Stronger immune system
  • Improved ability to focus attention (concentrate)
  • Reduced stress
  • Increased ability to ‘multi-task’

I think most of us would be glad of improvements in any of these areas.

I trained in this years ago, but don’t remember it being called ‘mindfulness’. I can certainly tell you that, over the last 10 years I have had a total of one day off sick (that was made up of two half days).

As you know, I’m always looking for ways to improve, especially ones that are simple and easy to apply, so let me share this with you.

What Does It Involve?


One aspect is meditation. At their most basic, many forms of meditation involve repeating a word or sound many times either in your head or out loud. You just let any other thoughts drift in and then away, like clouds. I was told that all I had to do was to do this a couple of times a day and I would see benefits.

I noticed a big drop in stress levels. I didn’t really measure my ability to focus, but I think most people who work with me would say I can generally do that quite well. (Though there is always room for improvement!)

Directing your attention, and holding it in place, re-wires your brain. This happens during the meditation, but just repeating it regularly (daily if possible) changes your brain in lasting ways. The executive systems, including the cingulate cortex, become better at paying attention. This new skill is then applied across everything you do.

Being able to focus your attention is crucial to just about everything you do at work (and probably out of work too).

Wider Awareness

We often do things ‘without thinking’. So we don’t notice what is going on. Simple exercises to improve awareness can have big benefits. Again, they can reduce stress, but they can also help us to notice how we are thinking and improve our thinking.

This skill can help us to spend less time in negative cycles of thought, worrying about things or brooding on past problems.

I learned some exercises in this area from my singing teacher. We did breathing exercises. Now don’t worry, they are not difficult. All you have to do is, when you are walking (preferably outside somewhere nice) slow down your breathing.

One exercise I learned involves breathing in for two steps, out for three, in for three, out for four, in for four, out for five and so on. My teacher could get up to 40 steps for one breath. I have never made it that far.

It doesn’t have to be that hard. You could just have a go at breathing in and out every three steps. As you do it, really expand your rib cage. If you can breathe with your diaphragm, do that.  Notice any areas of tension and relax them. Smile. Pay attention to the objects you are walking past.

Notice the feelings in the different parts of your body as you do it.

Do this for just a few minutes. Even if it’s as you walk along a corridor at work, it’s still useful.

The Research

The reason why this is now becoming so popular again, I think, is because the advanced methods of research available to neuroscientists mean that people can say why it’s working.

The insular cortex becomes better at sensing the interior state of your body, your primary emotions and at recognising the emotions of others, which improves your emotional intelligence.

Focusing on your breathing and slowing it down sends messages to the heart to slow down. Breathing more deeply increases the blood supply to your brain, which increases the oxygen supply to your brain (no bad thing).

Why Do I Like This So Much?

Simple. Because you don’t have to work hard to get the benefits. Amazingly, even just a few minutes a day will give real benefits. This is why I’m passing it on to you. A really simple, completely free couple of techniques that are virtually guaranteed to improve your life. What could be better?

Let me know how you get on. And if you have some exercises you would recommend, please share them here. I feel sure that there are some great ideas out there.