How to Have Difficult Conversations with Family

With the summer holiday season fast approaching, some people are dreading family get-togethers in which topics such as politics, religion, current events always come up and consistently generate tense, maybe even angry, conversations.  Whether it’s anticipating the inflammatory comments of an uncle with opposite political views or fear of falling into the same pattern around a religious conversation with a sibling, there is good news.  Firstly, all these feelings—fear, dread, anger, anxiety, frustration, exacerbation—they’re all signs of being a human being… and a passionate one at that! And passionate human beings are more interesting than dull, apathetic ones. And they are signs that not only are you a human being, but the person that you’re speaking with is also a human being… even though it may not always seem like it.

As human beings, it’s also very easy for us to fall into familiar patterns, because even though they might not always be pleasant, they have gotten us this far. But falling into the same patterns of anger, frustration, dread can be exhausting, stressful and unfulfilling. So how do we break the cycle?

Here are a few items to think about BEFORE heading into a potentially difficult conversation. This exercise is particularly powerful if you take time to write out your answers and mull them over so that you can really connect with them before getting into the stressful situation. It also helps to think of a specific conversation with a specific person (or group of people) that you are likely to have.

What’s my objective? What do you want to get out of this conversation? Are you interested in having this be a time of connection and celebration? Is it important to you to get your point across? Are you curious to learn from others? Do you want to express your feelings? Are you advocating for a particular position?

How am I likely to meet my objective? What strategies worked for you in the past? What strategies didn’t work? Are there any other strategies that you haven’t considered? Listening more? Asking more questions?  Speaking more, less? Bringing written information?  Changing the location of the conversation? Speaking with a different person? Finding an ally?

What are my triggers? What feelings come up most often for you around this difficult conversation? Pick one. When you feel that way, what body sensations do you have? How do you carry your body? How do you carry your body when you have an opposite/ completely different feeling? What choices do you have when in a conversation? When you notice the body sensations (which often come up before you are conscious of your feelings), you can notice how you’re feeling.

How do I get out? Trying to manage all these things can be difficult and overwhelming, even for someone with lots of practice and experience. So, it can be helpful to have an exit strategy in case things aren’t going the way you hoped so that you have time to regroup, get settled and decide on your next course of action. Giving yourself some time and space away from the conversation is nothing to be ashamed of, rather it is a healthy way to manage your triggers.  You could volunteer to help with something/ someone else, have a joke handy, start singing, arm wrestle, suggest an alternate activity, request time to process your feelings/ the information, ask to continue the conversation another time. What other exit strategies can you think of?

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