By Wayne Rivers and Dr. Mike Lyons

As the hustle and bustle of the Thanksgiving/Christmas holiday rapidly nears, we take stock of all our blessings even in these challenging economic times. One of our greatest blessings and treasures is family-although those of us in family businesses can attest that our deep and abiding love for one another is no panacea protecting us from occasional upsets!

Because family togetherness increases greatly during the end of year holidays, we want to deliver some tips for how to get along, make merry, and enjoy family time so that your memories of the upcoming holidays are ones of joy and glad tidings rather than-well-something else. The principles discussed in this article are the same any time families in business together draw near whether winter or summer holidays. A little pre-family get together analysis goes a long way, and creating easily understood ground rules are most beneficial.

The holidays are upon us once again. Thanksgiving dinner and Santa Claus plans are coming together, and families and extended families will be spending more time together during the next 45 days than during any other time of the year. Sometimes this family togetherness also creates family tension. Inquiries to The Family Business Institute from families who've had a little too much togetherness always spike in January and February following the end of year holidays. What advice have we got for family and closely held business owners to help holiday and family togetherness time be a little less stressful, a little more bearable, and a lot more fun? We recommend a few thoughtful steps to help assure positive family experiences.

First, start with a little assessment. A great paper and pencil tool is something called a "force field analysis." Draw a line from top to bottom of a paper. Title one side "helping forces" and the other side "hurting forces." Now look at family get-togethers past. What activities, foods, places, unexpected events, etc., have helped you have a great time, and what activities, foods, places, unexpected events, etc., have hurt your enjoyment of togetherness? To increase the odds that the get-together will be successful, take your survey to a few others who will be joining you. If cousins, in-laws, long lost maiden aunts, etc. will be coming, make sure you survey some or all of them. Now your job is to increase the number and strength of the helping forces while decreasing the number and strength of the hurting forces.

Some people, places and things may be easier to design in or out of the festivities. One of our clients had an intense negative reaction to mayonnaise in food. When one of his brothers decided it would be fun to see "whether it was all in his head" and secretly mixed mayonnaise in the potato salad and chip dip, it was both a serious Maalox moment and an issue of contention between brothers. Make sure you speak with the mayonnaise maven in your family about the importance of having a fun family event, and keep the practical jokes and experiments to a minimum.

A second helpful exercise is to think about the people in your family that somehow seem to push all your buttons. While candid, frank discussions with this person are probably in order at some point, doing it during Thanksgiving or Christmas is likely to be an absolute disaster. In order to manage your negative feelings about another family member (or members), do an "appreciation exercise." In a quiet place where you can be alone with your thoughts, get a piece of paper and list at least 20 things that you genuinely like and appreciate about the person. Come on, it's not that hard! Surely there are some things and attributes the person has that are worthy of appreciation and even admiration. What you'll find by doing this exercise is that your negative feelings about the person are eroded while your positive feelings increase dramatically. This simple exercise may not make the two of you best friends, but it will draw a great deal of tension out of interactions when the two of you are together and allow you to behave in the best interests of the family.

During family gatherings, sharing space together can create tension. In particular, sharing Mom and Dad's (or Grandma and Granddad's) beach (or mountain) property or home place always creates controversy. Prior to getting together, it would be a most fruitful third exercise if a representative group of adults could meet to discuss appropriate and inappropriate uses and behaviors associated with the gathering place.

Coming up with a few ground rules that everyone can agree upon and commit to is the goal of the session. For example, Grandma absolutely hates having dogs in her house. Even though you may be as attached to your dogs as to your children, surely you can arrange to have your dog looked after at a kennel or by neighbors for the sake of family harmony during holiday gatherings. Other ground rules might have to do with keeping the house clean, parking, invitations of non-family friends, sleeping arrangements among unmarried persons, drinking of alcohol versus "dry" conditions, safety for the benefit of babies, toddlers, and senior citizens, noise before and after certain times of day, etc. The purpose of coming up with and then communicating the ground rules to all is to create an environment with boundaries so that it's less likely that people will have their feelings hurt, their boundaries intruded upon, and feathers ruffled over issues which could have been easily avoided. This is simply a good communications step to take to respect the needs and wishes of others in the group-and so they'll respect your needs and wishes as well.

These three exercises, of course, may be easier said than done. There very well may be helping or hurting forces that that are difficult if not impossible to engineer in or out of the festivities. A seriously ill grandfather whose stories brought laughter to the family can't necessarily be returned to health. A sister who consistently comes in a happy high and leaves an angry drunk may not be easily reformed. (She may need a family intervention, but Thanksgiving or Christmas is not the time to do it! She should be spoken with before the event and asked to kindly help out by avoiding past negative behaviors. If discussion doesn't work, that reinforces the need for professional help). Finally, there are practical things like planning food for picky-eater youngsters and arranging for extra firewood that may help to assure family holiday gatherings are a success.

We wish you and your family a glorious and safe holiday season, and we hope the family get together strengthens the bonds of those in your business family.

Wayne Rivers and Dr. Mike Lyons are principals at The Family Business Institute, Inc. FBI's mission is to deliver interpersonal, operational and financial solutions to help family and closely-held businesses achieve breakthrough success.