With the holidays right around the corner, many of us will be spending time catching up with friends and family members. In addition to our time together, our communication within these relationships is our path to closeness and connection. Especially with heightened tensions after the election, these reunions can be tricky at times to navigate. Here are 6 tips for more mindful, effective, and rewarding communication with your loved ones:
1. Listen with your full attention. This is easier said than done- I’m able to do this up to 8 hours a day during therapy sessions and yet when I visit with family members, I still have trouble! Our minds are usually going many places at once, which can inadvertently convey disinterest or judgment. Listening with our full attention means being present, focusing on not only the content of what a person is saying but also the underlying feelings which we imagine they are experiencing.
If you know this is hard for you, give yourself a little time to prepare. Before your family shows up to the house on Thanksgiving or before you go to meet up with a friend, center yourself. Take a deep breath. Focus on aspects of the other person that you accept, respect, and love. Clear your mind by doing a short meditation. Try not to enter an important conversation when your mind is cluttered. By entering into a dialogue more mindfully, you set yourself up for a more rewarding interaction.
2. Respond, don’t react. If you have relatives that you know will push your buttons at your Thanksgiving dinner, this is a good mantra to keep in mind. All relationships involve conflict now and then, so it’s important to think about how to respond in a way that is respectful rather than in a way escalates an argument.
First breathe. This helps us keep calm and access our more rational thoughts versus the more emotional ones. If you can’t respond calmly, don’t respond yet. Give yourself a few minutes, see how you feel and what you think once your emotional reaction subsides. Maybe you’re still angry and you want to express that — that’s fine, and it will probably be a more effective response once you’re calm.
Keep your intentions in mind: what do you want to get out of your interaction? Is your goal to be right or to be close? Being right is about winning an argument, whereas being close is about understanding on both sides. Let this guide your choices in your response. Sometimes it’s good to have a dialogue sharing different opinions, whereas other times it’s best to leave it alone and change topics.
3. Empathize first. This is a good practice to follow when a friend or family member opens up about a problem they’re facing. Empathy can often be more comforting than a solution, and once people are comforted they can usually figure out solutions on their own. Ask whether the person would like advice or if they just want to vent. Be okay with silence and discomfort; it isn’t always necessary or helpful to give advice. Sometimes just saying “I’m here if you need anything” or simply acknowledging a person’s feelings is more than enough. Start with empathy, and see where it leads.
If a friend or family member is expressing feelings or opinions that you disagree with, empathy is still a great place to start. If you begin by reflecting what you’ve heard and validating someone’s feelings about something, this lowers defensiveness and creates a sense of shared understanding and acceptance, which is important if you plan to express an opposing view.
4. Use the 5:1 rule. Relationship expert John Gottman talks about the need for couples to maintain a “magic ratio” of 5:1 positive to negative interactions in order for marriages to last. In a good relationship, there will be more positive than negative interactions, enough more that it creates a sort of cushioning for the negatives. I encourage people to practice this in all of their relationships, not just marriages. Often we don’t talk about the positive feelings we have towards someone or tell them what we appreciate, because those little moments might come to be expected and overlooked. Look for opportunities to say thank you, to give praise, to empathize or validate, to compliment, to say I love you. While the holiday season is a hectic time, it also gives us many opportunities to express our love and gratitude; by communicating these positive feelings, we bring more joy into our relationships.
5. Set boundaries for tough conversations. If certain conflicts are coming up repeatedly and getting too much ‘air-time,’ then set some boundaries. Perhaps you’d like to ask relatives to simply not discuss politics at the dinner table, and only bring it up before or after if they choose – this sets some limits without avoiding the discussion. Or if your child’s college application process is a source of contention, set up a time when you’re going to talk about it, then think about how you’d like to approach the topic and consider what outcomes are realistic. Setting boundaries and expectations around difficult conversations reduces the tension or fear that the subject might pop up at any time. By giving yourself and others a chance to reflect on the subject and plan what to say or not to say, it also leads to more productive communication about the issue.
6. Envision positive conversations, and communicate your way there. Take time to think about what you most want to share with your friends and family when you see them, and imagine what you would most like to hear and feel from their responses. This can be a guide for how you choose to communicate your feelings, as well as for how ask for your needs to be met. I ask kids to think of at least three positive experiences or accomplishments they’d like to share when they see friends and family over the holidays, and to think about how they want to tell their stories based on the reaction they are hoping to receive.
It’s also okay to bring up more difficult topics – and even more important to envision a positive outcome of that interaction. We don’t always know what we want from a conversation, but when we do know, we can honor that and try our best to communicate in a way which leaves us feeling understood. Think about your audience, reflect on what you want to get out of your interaction, and speak your truth.