Healing Relationships During the Holidays

The holiday season is a wonderful time to gather with family and friends to celebrate and share time together. However, it’s all too common that when families get together, someone does or says something that offends another family member. Perhaps someone makes a comment about the poor manners of another family member’s children. Or perhaps someone comments on what ugly apparel their spouse is wearing. Maybe someone protests forcefully when another suggests an activity that everyone should go out together to do. Whatever the issue, the filters come down, people blame one another, make rude comments, and offer unwanted advice that causes other family members to take offense. Then people shut down, clam up, or withdraw from the situation entirely.

The challenge becomes how to heal the relationship so that family members can continue to function with respect and civility toward one another during their time together and thereafter.

Once when my sister was offended by one of my brothers, I noticed that my sister complained about my brother to other family members rather than talking to my brother. After hearing her complain about it multiple times, I asked my sister, “How long are you willing to wait for Jim to rebuild the relationship?” “What?” she responded. So I explained that if she decided to do nothing to heal or improve that relationship, then probably nothing would ever change.

All of us have a relationship or two that could use some attention. Unless you consciously and deliberately weigh in on the cost of that relationship and make a conscious decision to improve it, nothing will change.

Here are 12 steps to improve the vitality and quality of your relationships:

1.     Be aware. Sometimes we are clueless. Not because we want to be, but because we just don’t recognize how our actions negatively impact others, nor do we stop ourselves and ask ourselves what we ought to improve. You can increase your awareness by reflecting on the quality of your relationships. Take a moment to be candidly honest with yourself and admit which of your relationships needs your attention.

2.     Recognize and own your contribution. Whether you want to admit it or not, you did or said something or you avoided engaging and that has helped you arrive at the place where you are. Some sincere self-reflection can help you identify what you may have done or said that has contributed to the current status of the relationship.

3.     Engage in conversation.This is the hard part. You may have to surrender your ego, your desire to be right, your desire to be in control, or whatever fears may be holding you back from engaging with the other person. Suspend your thinking and judgments and approach the other person with a spirit of learning and understanding. The interaction will go much better than you anticipated.

You also might want to use a respectful Attention Check such as, “I’d like to talk about what we could do to improve our relationship. Can we do that?” Don’t worry, they very likely won’t say, “No!” People are usually so shocked by another’s willingness to take the first step in repairing a relationship that they will accept your invitation.

4.     Prepare your perspective. Consider what you think you know. Examine or search for the facts or evidence that supports your perspective. It’s important to separate your judgments from the facts. If you can’t identify the facts that gave rise to your conclusions, you may need to hold off on holding the conversation. Our observations are what give rise to our thinking. If you can’t identify the data that is the foundation for your perspective, your thinking may be inaccurate or incomplete.

5.     Defuse your emotions. If you are upset, it is critical to defuse your negative feelings before attempting to hold a conversation if you want to have a positive result. Give the person the benefit of the doubt. Ask yourself why they might be acting or reacting the way they do. Everyone is rational from their point of view. The challenge becomes for us to understand their perspective no matter how irrational they appear to us.

6.     Invite their perspective. Because you have thought through the current situation and understand your perspective, invite them to share their viewpoint first. This will allow you to gain insight into their thinking, allowing you to know how to respond when it is your turn to share.

7.     Ask questions and truly listen. As they are sharing their perspective, you must be totally present and really listen to what they are telling you. Ask questions to deepen your understanding, clarify what you have heard and understood, and ask for specific examples. Don’t assume anything. Patiently ask and listen to understand.

8.     Apologize. Offering an apology is not assuming blame for the entire situation. For example, if you were unclear in giving directions, then you would say, “I apologize for not being more clear.” If you did or said something that may have been offensive, then you would say, “I apologize that I offended you.” It doesn’t matter if you didn’t intentionally offend. Usually, offense is taken where none was given. Simply apologize for your actions.

It is also important to make the apology about you, rather than about them. I once had someone say to me, “I’m sorry that you didn’t understand me.” I almost laughed out loud because their “apology” really did nothing more than assign the misunderstanding to me. It did nothing toward resolving the issue, but rather continued to provoke a negative reaction.

9.     Be sincere. I have found that sincerity will carry the day. If you aren’t genuine in wanting to improve the relationship, it doesn’t matter what you say, it won’t improve. If you sincerely want to improve and deepen your relationship with a person, they will know it through the energy you project.

10.  Be forgiving. Sometimes the reason we become angry with another person is because we are angry with ourselves, often more so than being angry with the other person. First, forgive yourself. Second, forgive the other person for what they may have done or said. If you harbor ill feelings or negative emotions for another person, it will cause damage to yourself. If you can forgive the other person, you will create a space for any number of positive gifts to come into your life. Be positive. Positive attracts positive, whereas negative attracts negative. You want to be a positive attractor.

11.  Agree upon what will change. Together you may need to identify what you will do differently that will contribute to the relationship going forward—how you will speak or what you might do when a certain situation arises. Be sure that you both agree about who will do what and when and be as specific as you can.

12. Make time. Think of the quality relationships that you currently have. Great relationships take time and effort. Be sure that you make time to improve the relationship and know that things just don’t get better by themselves. You have to be actively and intentionally engaged to make things different. This will take some time, particularly where past negative history exists.

Having healthy, loving, supportive relationships in our lives is what makes life worth living. After all, aside from our knowledge, the only other thing we take with us when we leave this frail existence is our relationships. Taking the time to nurture and grow your relationships is well worth the effort.      

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