It’s that time again … holidays and the season of light. For most, it is a time of thanks, sharing, love and connection. It is also a time for reflection and of a reckoning of who is important to us in our families and how are we doing. Are there fences to be mended? Have there been hurts? I recall a story I heard once in my practice about a family that had been estranged for many years. No one knew, exactly, what lay at the bottom of the impasse, except that it had something to do with something someone was purported to have said toward another family member. The twisted, distorted and convoluted telephone tag that ensued fractured most of the relationships within this family for several years. The thing purportedly said was never validated. No one — except the participants — experienced it (each, of course, having their own “take” on what actually happened). Yet the event caused family members to choose sides and form alliances leading to deeper fractures.
Sadly, this family was not able to see past their own exclusive point of view, which of course, hardened over time as family members chose sides. Some members made attempts to forgive, apologize and mend fences. Others said things that instigated the original apparent wounding. As family events came and went, including some “milestone” events, e.g. graduations, only some family members were “included”. Others were not chosen. This only re-opened and infected the wounds for the family, as some took “principled” stances, holding fast to their morality about what “should” happen, what “should” have been said and done, etc. This, of course resulted in more alienation, misunderstanding and confusion in this family, as they began to grapple with a whole range of realities about family members’ value systems, beliefs, parenting philosophies, and even assumed political and class differences; a world away from the original reported issue.
This families story, or some variation, sadly may not be that uncommon. As we enter the holiday season and are fortunate to have time with our families and loved ones, we may need an assist with how to remain open to those whom we love and how not to become defensive around criticism when family becomes angered or upset. Here are some tips for you and to share (to the extent you can — or that they are interested — with family and loved ones):
- Be the change you want to seek and take personal responsibility for what’s yours in the matter
- Communicate with family and loved ones about upsets in a way that does not imply criticism or blame
- Try to offer your words and thoughts unconditionally, without a request or demand from family and loved ones
- Try to take a step back and put the issue with family and loved ones in a context that makes sense
- Seek to connect with family and loved ones rather than take a preachy or moralistic stance
- Brevity … try to get to the point quickly … don’t go on too long (lest you become preachy and moralistic!)
- Assess for readiness. Family and loved ones might not be in the same place as you and may need some time.
We may only agree with five percent of what a loved one says, but we can still find common ground. Listening without defensiveness is challenging and we must be tuned into our own defensiveness and catch ourselves when we are focusing on inaccuracies and distortions. Defensiveness starts in the body; remember to take deep breaths. Listen to understand, do not argue, interrupt or refute and ask questions about that which you may not fully understand. Apologize for your part in whatever is at issue and let the other party know they have been heard and you are genuinely considering their point of view. Thank them and take the initiative to being the matter up again. It is also important to know our limits and when we cannot listen, don’t. Let them know you want to give them your attention and that you need some time. When you have it, do not insult the other person, but let them know you just see things differently and define your differences with the other person, instead of avoiding conflict. An authentic apology doesn’t mean that we passively accept criticisms we believe are wrong, unjust or totally off the mark. Once you have done all this, ask them to pass the sweet potatoes …
Peace. Have a happy, healthy and joyful holiday season.