The weather is cooling down, the leaves are starting to turn, and if you like the taste of pumpkin, you’re in luck. Fall is here! And with the changing season comes a parade of festivities and holidays that give ample opportunities for gathering with family and close friends – even in a pandemic.
This time together can be a treat, a challenge, or a mix of the two. This year, in particular, your family get-togethers might be even more stressful and anxiety-filled than usual because it’s an election year. Even in families that typically have healthy dynamics, it’s not uncommon to have differing views. These normal differences can quickly turn a fun occasion sour if you’re not prepared to handle them. Here are 5 tips to keep your family time peaceful and meaningful.
1. Before launching a hot-button topic, ask yourself: “What is my intention for this conversation?”
Sometimes having the courage to talk about a difficult issue can lead to a meaningful conversation that will enrich the relationship and be well worth the discomfort involved. It can also feel empowering to stand up for what you believe in, even if the other person does not necessarily appreciate your message. But it is always a good idea to check your intentions before starting a conversation that could bring on intense emotions.
If your intention is to change the other person’s mind or to make them feel bad about themselves or their ideas, you may want to consider taking a personal time-out before diving into that conversation. Recognize that you’re about to invest a great deal of time and energy into something you have no control over.
If your intention is to make someone feel shame for their opinions, then you are likely to damage that relationships and make everyone around you uncomfortable, too. Other family members or friends may feel like they must pick sides when all they wanted to do was enjoy being with people they care about.
However, if your intention is to better understand where the other person is coming from or to help them better understand your perspective, then it is probably safe to proceed with the conversation. If this is your intention, then you’re much more likely to be able to truly listen and to show respect for the other person’s point of view.
More importantly, if you are going into the conversation with the intention of understanding, then you’ll be much more likely to find acceptance if your family member doesn’t change their mind after hearing your side. The point is that you both care about each other enough to try to understand and this can strengthen your relationship.
Finally, if your intention is to state your opinion because you feel that to be quiet would be to be complicit in something that you don’t agree with, then by all means follow your conscience. Just remember that you can state your opinion in a respectful way without putting down others.
2. Use “I messages” to avoid putting anyone on the defensive.
“I messages” make a world of difference in how your message is perceived. When you use the “I message” approach, you are stating your emotional reaction to a specific behavior or statement and a direct request for a specific change in that behavior. You take charge of your own emotional state, focusing on behaviors instead of personal attributes. This approach gives the other person a detailed description of your preferences, without anything that might feel like a personal attack.
For example, if your uncle is repeatedly saying the candidate you plan to vote for is an “idiot” (or similar, negative description), then you could say something like: “I feel frustrated when you make derogatory statements about so-and-so. In future, would you please avoid making those statements when I am here?”
Keep in mind that “I messages” won’t work if you aren’t willing to be honest about your emotions and take responsibility for them without putting blame on the other person for how you’re feeling. Also, if you start making statements about the other person’s attributes or resort to name calling, the other person will very likely become defensive and the conversation is likely to immediately become unproductive.
3. Respect family members’ boundaries.
Keep in mind that everyone has the right to decline to participate in a conversation if they aren’t comfortable with the topic or do not feel like the conversation is going to be productive. Some people love to debate topics and can go back and forth all evening about a difference of opinion without becoming emotionally drained. However, a lot of people don’t like to debate or they may feel so strongly about a topic that they know they are likely to be emotionally triggered if they are forced to engage in a conversation about that topic.
It’s important that family members respect each other’s boundaries when it comes to which topics are on the table for conversation, especially during a family event that has more than just the two family members present. When family members do not respect each other’s boundaries, that is when things start to feel unsafe and the level of trust and intimacy deteriorates.
The best thing to do, if you want to engage and a family member does not, would be to let them know that you would like to talk when they are ready. Assure them that when that time comes, you will do your best to listen and not be judgmental.
4. Watch the temperature.
When people are expressing strong opinions, things can become heated quickly, even when everyone has the best of intentions and the conversation began in a respectful way.
Start by watching your own emotions. Signs that you may be getting too heated and may need a time out might include feeling hot, shaking, clenching your fists, raising your voice, wanting to stand up and pace, or feeling tears rise. Once you are in touch with your own emotional reactions, you will be better equipped to notice how other family members are doing.
A great technique is to make an agreement at the start of your conversation that anyone can request a time out or a change in topic at any time. Remember that if you make this agreement, you must honor it so trust will stay intact.
5. Keep the main thing (your relationship) the main thing.
Working through difficult conversations can deepen a relationship, but spending too much time on the hard stuff can become a barrier to growth. Make time to enjoy each other’s company. Talk about mutual interests, do an activity you both enjoy, and celebrating each other’s successes. All of these things are the building blocks for creating strong, supportive relationships that can withstand disagreements and continue growing for a lifetime.
If your relationships are strained and you're having trouble handling the stress, Kindred Place can help. To schedule an appointment with a therapist, call 901-276-2200, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or click here to complete an online form.