As we head into the holidays, many of us may have a bit of trepidation about reconnecting with our family members.That's natural. And it's understandable.
If you're doing your own personal work your family's old, unhelpful relational behaviors probably are starting to stand out to you like a 'sore thumb'. And it can be conflicting because at heart, there's still a desire for connection with some of your family members, in some way. Not with everyone. But I think you know what I mean. You wouldn't be there if there wasn't.
But these days, maybe you 'speak' a different language, and desperately want them to speak it too. So how do we bridge this growing gap? That's a fair question. And to me, that 'bridge' between language, stage of growth or knowledge base...is what we share. Our HUMANITY.
Underneath all those awkward, socially-uncomfortable, sometimes disruptive behaviors, we all are still looking to get the same needs for mattering, belonging, safety or connection met. Just many of us are doing it lower-quality, unskilled and polarizing ways. And as you know, those behaviors are often a reflection of modeling, habit, familiarity and lack of knowing any other way to go about it.
Does this excuse poor behavior? Of course not.
Yet, as you gently, kindly and firmly clarify boundaries, keep in mind that example is often the best teacher. Show them what it looks like to connect at a human level, while also connecting with others in the way they can offer, at a given moment. Sometimes acceptance of what each person can offer at any given time, is the sweet spot of connection. Can you meet your family where they are at...while gently showcasing where your relationship could go?
It's bit of a two-step dance
Sometimes we need to do a mix of asking our friends and family to 'stretch' and relate to you in new ways ....and then relating to them in the ways they know.
Maybe it's social chit chat... intermixed with you asking thoughtful questions about what's going on with someone.
Maybe it's playing cards, watching sports and cooing over babies... intermixed with you expressing genuine appreciation for the more meaningful things in your life.
And as needed, (and perhaps the hardest one) clearly and kindly bringing attention to behaviors that cross boundaries...while ALSO empathizing with the difficulty of always knowing what to say or how to act in certain situations - we've all been there!
Remember, if you're changing? Other people have to learn a new way to interact with you. And as you know firsthand, letting go of old ways of doing anything..is HARD. And we all fumble with it in the beginning.
Knowing when to speak up, or say nothing
Sometimes it's hard to know what to say in awkward situations. When do I say something? When do I not? When is saying nothing an avoidance strategy cloaked as 'being mature' or 'emotionally intelligent'? And when is disengagement really the most powerful action I can take? It's something only each person really knows. And it can be a bit tricky to decipher in the moment.
Although I’m a big advocate for healthy communication and speaking up to call out rude or disrespectful behavior, there are times that I sense people provoke confrontation or cyclic conversation as an attempt to feel power, feel better about themselves or just to offload their own anxiety. They're unconsciously trying to ‘reel me in’ because engagement of any kind - even if it's confrontational - is affirming to humans. So in those cases, it may be healthier to not engage. Because by engaging or responding to confrontational dialogue, we inadvertently perpetuate a feedback loop - a verbal action from someone that gets a intended response (acknowledgement) from me. And it’s not something the person is consciously looking for.
Non-response is one way of interrupting a pattern. Emotionally, and in social interactions. Now, that doesn’t mean we have to be jerks about it. Ignoring behavior is not the same as ignoring a person. We can stay engaged but change the conversation topic. Or we can simply stand there, calmly and powerfully looking at them in silence. And, if it’s truly dysfunctional, we can also disengage completely.
It’s really a case by case call. And I've found benefit from asking myself the following questions:
What is this person really looking for?
What’s the most helpful action (or inaction) I can take in this moment?
Is there a boundary being crossed that I need to speak up about?
How much do I care about my relationship with this person?
Is there another way to influence this pattern?
Granted these situations can happen in a split second! So it’s hard to think of all of that in the moment. But my main point is that depending on the situation, it can sometimes be wiser to say nothing or disengage. And other times, healthy communication is needed. And if you don't know instantly? Erring on the side of delayed response ( maybe count to 15 in your head before you respond ) has its benefits.
Timing and language choice is a nuanced skill that is really unique to each relationship. Each of us has certain words that we're more sensitive to than others. And in close relationships we know what those are for each other. Although it may provide a momentary sense of personal one-upmanship, weaponizing that knowledge has no relational benefit. So do your best to choose your words wisely.
Here are some language examples to use when conversations are not helpful, you sense you're being baited or need to stand up for a boundary. Tone is critical. So is volume and pace. Nothing screams "emotionally off-center" in these situations more than loud, fast-talking or high-pitched speech. Moderate tone and volume, that's firm and kind is do-able. If your body is signaling you to wait a few moments before speaking (ie tight throat, shallow breathing)..then take a few moments. There's no relational prize for some instant, snarky rebuttal (even if it made you laugh a little in your head). So try customizing a few of these
"I can tell this is really important to you. And I want to hear you. Can you lower your voice and slow down so I can give you my full attention?"
"I don't really agree with that, but I'll give it some thought"
"That may be possible / true. And there are some other possibilities. Wanna hear them?"
(and if they say no.... "that's too bad. What else do you want to talk about that we can both have some input?" )
"I hadn't heard that before. I'll give it some thought" ( you can always consider something even if you don't plan on changing your mind )
"Look, we've talked about this for a while now and we can come back to it later if needed. How about we talk about something that not so polarizing? We don't see each other that often".
"That really doesn't feel great when you say stuff like that. It feels disrespectful to me.
Can you try and rephrase it?"
"I love you, but I can't stand by and hear you speak to ______ like that. Can you try that again? I know you probably mean well"
For more Language Examples for Difficult Conversations, go here.
I can't guarantee they'll have the desired affect. But modify a few to fit your situation and give it a try.
As a close, remember that in some imperfect, clumsily executed way, we all wish for happiness. And none of us wish to suffer.
So, as you reconnect with your families, do your best to bridge that growth-gap with love and appreciation for how challenging it is to be HUMAN.
NOTE - If really want to equip yourself for holiday interactions with the family, check out this free class ( it's only 75 minutes long ), How to Get your Needs met in Healthy Ways. It will open your eyes to some reasons you probably haven't thought of yet, behind why people act or behave a certain way. And it just may shift how you see, and interact with, your loved ones.
The Human Infusion Project is a grassroots, philanthropic personal development platform that draws from the combined fields of modern brain science, applied psychology and spiritual philosophy. Our mission aims to augment and supplement the work of professional practitioners in simplified, practical and affordable ways. 100% of all online class profit funds the Wellness Assistance Grant. If financial constraints limit your participation, please contact me and we'll work something out.