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Nov262014

FIVE HOLIDAY TIPS FOR BETTER FAMILY COMMUNICATING

 We’re in it again—the time of the year when whoever created calendars jam-packed into less than five weeks several holidays that excite and delight young people and make or break the business year for every retailer.

And what’s the big thing that Kwanzaa, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, and New Year’s have in common?  Family.  Which sometimes means warmth, love, support and joy, and sometimes means dread, discomfort, and conflict.

When you’re basking in the first of these, enjoy it fully!  When dread, discomfort, and family conflict happen, try these five, research-based suggestions:

Maintain Fairness.  Fairness is so deeply ingrained in Western cultures that effective family communication has to include it.  Although few family members demand moment-to-moment equality,  parents want their spouses to be as committed as they are and to make the same level of emotional investments in the family as they do, and brothers and sisters want to be treated fairly.  Both men and women commonly use unfairness as a reason for cheating.

Financial issues, emotional contributions, material belongings, and sex commonly raise fairness issues in families.  And the reason unfairness can hurt so much is that most people interpret it as a threat to their identity.  “People who get taken advantage of must be weaklings.  “When she does so much less than I do, it makes me look stupid to our friends.”  “The money he makes is great, but it’s a lot harder to give emotional support to the kids, which he almost never does.”

Apply the fairness rule to decisions about how and where to spend holiday time; who’s responsible for jobs like outside and inside decorating, addressing cards, and cooking; who gets gifts; where the money comes from; and whose favorite activities get done.

Communicate Confirmation  Each of us needs to know that our desires count, that we’re an important part of the family, that we matter.  In many Western cultures these points are made with direct eye contact, comments relevant to the other person’s topic, and equitable turn-taking, which mean minimal interruptions.  In other cultures, it can be done differently.

 Notice the difference between “I’m sorry you feel hurt” and “You’ll get over it.”  The first statement says that the other’s feelings are important, and the second says they aren’t.  “You matter to me” is confirming and “I don’t care what you do” will almost always be interpreted as disconfirming.  “I hear you” is much more confirming than “You shouldn’t feel that way.”  Confirmation communicates respect, and this is an important part of family communicating.

Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff.  Healthy family communication requires that people are willing to overlook minor irritations and frustrations that are inevitable when people are close.  Each of us has quirks, habits, and mannerisms that can irritate others—leaving dirty dishes in the sink, talking to ourselves while others are around, insisting things go in a certain order, showing up early or late.  Effective family communicators develop thick skins about inconsequential irritations and reserve serious talk times for topics that really matter.

 Use Supportive Talk  Years ago, Jack Gibb identified five characteristics of communication that promotes defensiveness, and five alternatives that promote supportiveness.  The first supportive communication choice is description rather than evaluation.  Rather than, “You never ask me about how long you folks will stay with us,” try “For the past several holidays you’ve made that decision on your own, and I’d like to be part of it.”

 Gibb’s second suggestion is to replace control with problem-orientation.  Rather than flexing your muscles in a win-lose way, get the two (or more) of you on the same side in relation to whatever the problem is.  The third and fourth ways to talk supportively are to substitute spontaneity for strategy and empathy for neutrality.  Spontaneity means being open about your motives—“I just don’t want to spend as much as we did last year”—rather than hiding your real intent.  Neutrality happens when you don’t own your choices—“But this is the way we’ve always done it!”  Here, empathy means taking responsibility for your choices and owning your opinions.

 The final two are to substitute equality for superiority, and provisionalism for certainty.  I’ve already talked about equality and fairness.  Provisionalism means leaving wiggle-room in your suggestions, ideas, and plans.  "I think this plan for the week will work.  What do you think?"

Keep Talking—Forever.  Fundamentally, a relationship is a commitment to keep talking, and a family relationship is permanent.  People who have disowned their children, brothers who refuse to talk with their sisters, and aunts who ignore troubled nephews are all violating this family communication guideline.  Blood is thicker than water, and although divorce drastically changes a relationship, it doesn’t really end it, especially if there are children.

 One reality supporting this suggestion to “keep taling” is that history isn’t over yet.  None of us knows what will happen next.  An unexpected death has extinguished many sparks of hope for family healing, leaving members with burdens of, “If only I had. . . .

 Another reality is that people sometimes change in profound ways.  Therapy, treatment programs, and jail time can prompt genuine transformation, and only if you’ve kept talking will you share the benefits of this growth.  When your family members maintain a commitment to keep talking, even the most offended and entrenched may notice changes and be in the position to respond positively.

  There’s more about all of these in Chapter 5 of the New and Revised edition of U&ME: Communicating in Moments that Matter.

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