Tips to avoid conflict when hosting guests at the cottage

Updated: June 20, 2019

people-dancing-outdoors-summer Photo by Syda Productions/Shutterstock

The great 20th century self-help guru Dale Carnegie once remarked that, “There is only one way to get the best of an argument—and that is to avoid it. Avoid it as you would rattlesnakes and earthquakes.”

Although it isn’t clear how often the late Mr. Carnegie visited the cottage during his lifetime, one thing is for certain: he never had to contend with your family (or mine) for a weekend filled with carnivorous bugs, rash-giving plants, and a toilet with a mind of its own. It’s enough to make venomous reptiles and ground tremors look quaint.

If your cottage weekends get heated when personality meets proximity, here are some tips and tricks for helping everyone keep their cool:

1. Plan ahead

If you’re like most routine cottage-goers, the notion of preparing for the worst and hoping for the best is like second nature to you at this point. You always make sure to pack twice as much of everything you need (even if you end up leaving most of it in the trunk), you memorize the weekend weather forecast (and could probably recite it better than your local meteorologist), and you can name every single medical centre within a 100-mile radius.

However, when it comes to preparing for a possible row between your third cousin twice removed and your cantankerous mother-in-law—both of whom exist on total opposite sides of the political spectrum—you’re just hoping the furniture stays nailed to the ground.

In addition to immovable furniture, make sure you implement the following:

  • Strategic sleeping arrangements; keep each visitor in question as far away from the other as possible … even if that means you having to forfeit your bed (hello pullout couch!).
  • Minimize activities that involve interactions between both parties. This includes that pairs canoe race you had planned, or the group campfire at dusk you wanted to host (you can always blame the mosquitoes).
  • Have rotations planned for things such as riding the four-wheeler, using the hammock, sharing the TV. Also, have a clear bathroom schedule laid out (this last one could save a life).
  • Plan for separate arrival and return trips for guests who don’t see eye-to-eye… even if that means taking two cars. Your carbon footprint is important, but so is your sanity.
  • Schedule separate visits from the aforementioned foes. Just remember not to post those photos of your latest trip up if you’ve had to tell a fib about cancelling cottage plans to the other party.

 2. Conversation red flags

For all the “Beware of Bear” signs and “Danger, Do Not Swim Here” indicators designed to keep you from being eaten alive or capsized like the Swiss Family Robinson, there never seems much distant early warning when it comes to conversations bound to start World War III.

The following list—however brief—covers the obvious trigger topics to steer clear of:

  • Politics (everything from the Prime Minister to the Premiere, you’ll want to avoid this like a patch of poison ivy).
  • Religion (the origin of the universe? Why don’t we all have a beer and just stare up at the stars?)
  • The Economy (when it’s up it’s up, and when it’s down it’s down… c’est la vie!)
  • Climate Change (Is it happening? Yes. Are you going to solve it by yelling at each other? Probably not.)
  • Global Disasters (this includes war, conflict, pandemics or the like… basically anything that sounds like the plot from a Roland Emmerich movie).
  • The News (unless it was that local piece about the hook-handed prison escapee you were warned about on the drive up).

Instead, keep the chatter to a minimum, and focus on your surroundings. Keep conversations that do occur light and topical. But most of all, breathe deep, enjoy the scenery—and tell others to do the same. They might just have a good time.

3. The great debate

Rattlesnakes and earthquakes aside, the aforementioned quote from Mr. Carnegie may be one piece of advice from the self-help section that’s worth keeping in mind.

If, however, neither member of your cottage entourage is able to allow the better angels of their nature to prevail over their need to stir up a spurious debate, you’ll want to make sure you’ve packed your referee hat among the other supplies. Although you didn’t come up here to re-enact your high school debate club days, if you do have to step in, remember the following:

  • If you get drawn into a squabble, look to find common ground between both sides. Seek out the threads in the debate that unify rather than divide. If both sides come away feeling like you supported them, it’s a win-win.
  • Try to offer simple solutions to complex problems. This can often mean redirecting attention to pressing matters related to keep the cottage running. Human beings are emotional creatures, and—like children—often need to be distracted before they can downgrade their ire. Also, like children, it sometimes take the adult in the room to remind them of their manners; especially when visiting a cottage that isn’t
  • Never insert your personal opinion, even if both sides may be missing the point. Proving others wrong will only reinforce their beliefs. As the Dalai Lama once said, “I’d rather be kind than right.” Remember, choosing sides or telling someone they are wrong can cost you a friendship (and possibly an appendage).

So the next time your faced with having to host a cadre of angry adversaries up at your cottage, remember to plan ahead, avoid incendiary conversation topics, and remain objective. It might just mean the difference between a weekend of cottage relaxation and the stuff of familial nightmares.

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