Even the best families have unresolved issues.  And the holidays seem like a convenient time to address them.  Everyone's together, you've got allies, more time to talk and high hopes that the holiday spirit will bring out the best in people.  Sounds great, right?  Not so fast.  Saving that talk about "the elephant in the room" for the holidays may not be your best strategy.  It doesn't help that holiday movies expose family secrets and problems-and resolve them happily at the end of the movie. 

Every family is unique, and what may be a "hot topic" to one may not be too hot to handle for another. Don't surprise your family by dropping the hot potato topic in their lap. People tend to get reactive when they're not prepared, and surprises can bring out the worst in them.  They might get defensive, angry, critical or cold.  The unexpectedness of the conversation robs them of the chance to reflect. 

Rather than forging new understandings, your holiday might end with dashed hopes and harsh words. Common unresolved issues involve money, decisions regarding other family member's welfare or feeling unaccepted. If you do have issues you'd like to raise or settle, read these three things you should know before you rock the family boat.

1. Start early. Lay the groundwork ahead of time. If you have allies, include them.  You may need to feel out their position on topics such as what to do about your sibling's drug problem or your need for more funds or nonjudgmental attitudes.  Gather your team, if you have one.  But instead of staging a presentation-or attack-at the holidays, you and/or your allies should begin an email or phone or letter relationship with the key members to address the topic.

2.  Stay positive and "respectful." The tricks are to use a positive approach and to ask for their advice. Yes-even if they've been trying to tell you all your life what to do, now is the chance to gain control of their critical nature. If you are acting alone, start by praising the key players for how you'd like them to think or act. 

For example, if you feel as though you aren't loved or accepted, use words and a tone such as:  "You know, I've been doing a lot of thinking, and now that the holidays are coming up, I've really seen things differently.  You've taught me a lot about responsibility, caring, being yourself. And I'm glad you've been wise and caring enough to let me find my own way. So, I'd like to ask your opinion on what I should do about (your issue.)"  You'll seemingly be putting them in the driver's seat but you'll really be forcing them to think and reflect. With each bit of advice they give, ask them to explain it some more.  Always present your complaint such as "You don't accept Tom" as a request for their opinion.  For example, you could say, "Tom is very reliable, hard-working, successful and kind.  Do you think that's a good match for me?" And be sure to thank them for their help.

If you have a team, ask each person to communicate only positive things about you. For example, each person could say something like, "Annie is really making a great decision about her job."

Finally, act as though the key players are on your side.  When you are less defensive, so are they.

3. Follow through on the topic and the new you.  Holiday talks can be volatile-or very seductive.  Gifts, good food, a decorated house and perhaps a little alcohol can make even Scrooge mellow out.  But don't rest on these good feelings.  Continue to use the new strategies.  Don't let the hot topic drop.  In the meantime, make sure you don't forget the birthdays and anniversaries of important family members.  Follow through on inquiring about what's going on in their lives.  Call for no reason. You want to send the message that you care about them and that you have changed.

The more you change your interactions with them, the more you increase your chances that they will respond to you differently.  When you surprise them with your new behavior, you shake up your family's old way of acting with you!