Twelve Blocks to Listening this Christmas

Are you imaging a happy and stress free holiday season? I’ve been thinking about how to make this happen, and mindful of the need to limit disagreements, I’ve decided to focus here on communication skills, specifically listening skills (very useful if you are an expat and separated geographically).

I’m used to listening intently in the therapy room, but suspect I am not so good at practicing those skills in my non professional life. My husband has been know to say “If you’d be quiet for a moment and listen… “ Oops.

musical christmas

All good conversations being with listening and I guess, any time of year is a fine time to hone our communication skills? The benefit is when we feel listened to we don’t get so cross.

The ancient song Twelve Days of Christmas, is about gifts given on the twelve days running up to Christmas. You’ll remember it goes:

‘On the First day of Christmas my true love sent to me a partridge in a pear tree.’

There are some unusual sounding presents;

‘Twelve Lords a leaping’

In the spirit of that much loved song I would advocate planning, in good time, presents for those important ‘others’ in our lives. To minimize stress, I try and maintain a sense of humour, it can also be a useful device for deflecting those tense moments that can epitomize family gatherings.

With usually far flung family ensconced for extended periods and children subjected to adults, and vice versa, frankly anything that brings harmony to the scene will be welcome. And let us not forget the hours of extra chores most of us embark on at this time of year.

Sadly those enforced hours together, will for some couples, be the end of the line. I’m thinking of the spike in divorce rates immediately after the holidays; the sombre fact is there are more divorces in the New Year than any other time.

However, before I get too carried away and become curmudgeonly, let me state that I do want to be happy and joyful, as befits the season, so to minimise discord would be helpful.

I have compiled Twelve Listening Blocks for this festive season, the hope being that respectful, clear communication will improve relationships, keeping negativity in check.

Have a look through the list and consider what rings true for you. This is not an opportunity to berate yourself, we are all guilty of at least some of these behaviours, its about raising awareness and choosing to stop, if you feel inclined.


  1. You are second guessing what the person is thinking instead of listening fully.
  2. Notice the pull to compare stories, “oh yes that happened to me too”. I’m guilty of this one. At least make sure let the other person finish telling their story first before you tell yours!
  3. Finding yourself practicing in your mind what you are going to say next instead of listening.
  4. Allowing yourself to be triggered and letting your thoughts drift off from the conversation.
  5. Personalising everything the other person says, again, over identifying with your own experience.
  6. Selective hearing, filtering – only listening to what grabs you.
  7. Discriminating, making judgements about the other person without hearing them out.
  8. Problem Solving; telling them what they “should” do. I recommend limited use of the word should. If they ask for advice, make sure they’ve finished speaking first and rather than telling them what they should do, you might want to ‘own’ your words saying “I would … “ that way you won’t get the blame if the advice doesn’t turn out well.
  9. Discounting the other person. For example, by not accepting a compliment when it is offered.
  10. Hanging on to the conviction that you are in the right. Try to be open to the other’s point of view, listening to their perspective.
  11. Trying to outdo the other person by putting them down. Even witty put downs are not funny for the person who is the butt of the joke and can create emotional distance. Placating and patronizing are also subtle techniques we may employ as put downs.
  12. Changing the subject inappropriately, just because you suddenly feel like it. There are times however, when changing the subject can be a way of moving on. For example, when an argument is going around in circles, the option to change the subject can be openly acknowledged “Shall we leave it there?”.

Whatever you are doing in the month of December I hope it is a happy one for you. Thank you for taking the time to read my blog Laura J Stephens in 2014. On Twitter? Join me @LauraJStephens


Messages: The communications Skills Book by Matthew McKay, 2009


10 Survival Tips for Christmas

Tis the season to be jolly’ so the carol goes, but when Chico Marx said to Groucho, ‘There ain’t no Sanity Clause!’ he had a point.

While aiming to be bright and merry, I know Christmas can be stressful as we try to fit hoards of extra activities into our schedules and all around us there are reminders that the clock is ticking down to the day. Factor in long hours spent with family members and a huge dollop of over indulgence and I’m wondering if Santa got the best deal – popping in unseen when everyone is asleep. Enough of the bar humbug!

Tree with Christmas lightsWhether you will be ensconced with family or an expat making a Skype call home, I hope these practical tips and thoughts on resilience will help ease the path to a happy Christmas.

1. Think positive, but be realistic; how do you normally feel the day after Christmas? What words does it conjure up for you and what would you like to be different this year?

2. When you feel your inner eight year old (the badly behaved part) about to respond to something your sibling throws out there, it’s probably time to make your excuses and leave (or at least pay a visit to the smallest room in the house). There you can take a few slow, deep breaths and ask yourself if you really want to bite or let it go.

3. Close your eyes and imagine anyone who is annoying you wrapped in a ball of golden stringy light – preferably without a piece of the string around their neck – sound weird? Try it anyway or imagine your own positive image and aim to keep interactions authentic and respectful.

4. Family gatherings can be a breeding ground for attention and admiration seeking behaviours. Maintain distance from anyone who is really gunning to push your buttons, you could also change the subject by having a few positive things ready to say.

5. Drink a glass of water between alcoholic ones and eat light between the feasts (avoid sugar, fats and processed carbohydrates if you can, at those times).

6. Plan longer journeys and if you need to, check the weather forecast and traffic hotspots before setting off to avoid disappointment and stress.

7. Get out in the fresh air and take some of your favourite exercise (or if you don’t have one, choose the one you loath least) it will boost happy hormones into your system. A family walk together is a shared experience and might pass time in a positive way.

8. Enjoy the company of young children and their presents, if they become fractious give them a fair warning before disciplining them and make sure everyone gets enough sleep.

9. Spreading a little goodwill can make you feel nice; contact someone who you imagine would like to hear from you. Remember John Lennon said, ‘And so this is Christmas . . . what have you done?

10. Know that you deserve to enjoy the festive season, remember what you like about it and if it still proves challenging, take heart, it will soon be over.


Forgive me one last quotation, ‘A lovely thing about Christmas is that it’s compulsory, like a thunderstorm, and we all go through it together,’ author Garrison Keillor.

So keep smiling and remember if you find yourself struggling at this time, you are not alone.

If you would like more help, here is a link to Mind’s 10 commandments of stress reduction at Christmas:

If you have any comments or tips to add, please share them below.

Christmas in prospect; a SWOT of possibilities!

Is Christmas better in prospect than reality? Does it live up to your expectations or struggle to measure up against the picture perfect images of an ideal home beamed at you by a hungry marketing machine.

Unless you are living a very quiet life, you will have encountered advertisements for Christmas merchandise from early November. They are in the ‘pop ups’ on your computer, the television (of course), billboards lining the streets, taking up aisles of your supermarket and you’ll hear the playing of (often jaundiced) Christmas music as you browse around the shops. Sometimes it even gets in to that most personal of spaces; our mobile phones!

I wonder what effect those omnipresent messages have on you. Perhaps they do tip you into a festive mood, giving you a warm glow in readiness for what’s to come or maybe they signal the beginning of weeks of shopping for presents (that you hope will demonstrate you purchased them thoughtfully) and a massive food shop which makes you wonder how you’ll make it through to January without considerable expansion.

I have noticed all of this and there are weeks of preparations to go yet!

I don’t wish to be a curmudgeon and I’m all for celebrating the birth of Christ, but the expectation to have a good one can weigh heavy at this time of year, particularly if there is another challenge to factor in.

Expats may feel they want to (or have to) travel to see family at Christmas, which adds a whole level of complexity to preparations. Such as what to do about presents – they can’t all be transported in suitcases and then there’s where to lodge – you don’t want to outstay your welcome and pressure to see everyone while you are back and so on.

For others who long for the familiarity of a family Christmas in their ‘home’ country, they will miss the people and special traditions. It can be difficult to get through Christmas day in a far off place…

Or in fact they may be really glad to be away from it all and possibly feeling guilty to boot – or not!

My memoir An Inconvenient Posting recounts my feelings on our first Christmas in Texas:

‘I yearned for family and aspects of home that made it feel like Christmas; cold weather, dark afternoons, the Queen’s speech, dubious television Christmas specials and wrinkly relatives.’

Christmas is especially difficult for those experiencing loss of some kind; when it feels like the rest of the world is in festive mood (clearly an illusion) how do you make it bearable? Some people may be reminded of happier times gone by, or be anxious how this Christmas will pan out when so much has changed in the last twelve months. They may just want it to be over and long for a distraction of some kind…

What are your pluses and minuses? I have thought of a few. I imagine you have others you could add to your own SWOT of thoughts (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats). Possibly some of the ‘strengths’ I’ve noted might be considered a ‘weakness’ or vice versa.


Lots of social events.

Break from work.

The relief of knowing its done for another year.

Community coming together through events such as Christmas lights being turned on, carol services, school fairs, grottos etc.

Enjoy traditions; Christmas pudding, smell of pine needles in the house, stockings hung on the fireplace, a garland on the front door or maybe a bbq on the beach if you are in a warm a climate!


Loss of routine.

Might be exhausting

Hours spent writing cards and wrapping presents.

A lot of travelling to see people.

For the providers, it goes on for weeks.


Might see people you don’t get to meet very often; older children are often at home.

Excuse to spend time with extended family.

Play games/bond with children.

Nice presents!

Can put your feet up and read or watch TV.

Time to be thankful for what you’ve got and hopefully feel good about it.

Opportunity to give to others.


Feeling you have to attend functions you are not keen on.

Over doing it at the Xmas party.

Pressure to finish work tasks and others “before Xmas” events.

Too much pressure to shop.

Might get the wrong presents.

Too much time with family!

Enforced time together can lead to tensions and flare ups.


Wherever you are and whatever you are doing on the 25th December, Christian or not, celebrating or not, I hope you are feeling okay about the run up to it.

If you would you like to read more about Christmas as an expat and how I faired you can buy An Inconvenient Posting by Laura J Stephens published by Summertime Publishing on Amazon.