There is no such thing as a perfect family. Every family has issues, but we can have healthy family relationships if we know how to best communicate. When dealing with tough family issues, it is always better to have a softer, kinder approach than one that is abrasive. Family members will be alienated when they are broached with a topic of concern and the approach is harsh.
Destruction within family relationships is typically done with words, so family members must be careful with what is said and also how it is said to fellow family members.
When dealing with touchy family subjects it is always better to think about the long term relationship. If someone approaches a family member with harshness, bitterness, meanness, or anger, the other party will retreat, and there will more than likely be damage to the relationship. However, if family members use a softer approach that is done in love, then the long term relationship will be improved rather than hindered. If families want healthy dynamics, then when discussions on difficult topics within family happen, words need to be chosen carefully, and the approach even more cautiously, because what is said and how it is said can have long lasting effects on family relationships.
Even small issues can have devastating results on the family if the issue is not appropriately negotiated and communicated.
For example, imagine if you have to move in with your spouse’s parents for a short term because your spouse had a job change. Your in-laws typed up a list of house rules and responsibilities that you feel is far too strict and unrealistic to implement especially since you have three young children. You want to contribute to the household duties and follow their rules, but also realize you have lots of other responsibilities on your plate, especially with care of your children. You want to broach the subject, but not sure what to say or how to say it. If you were to tell them that they were being completely ridiculous, unrealistic and unreasonable, they would most likely not react well to your statement. Depending on how severe your tone of voice and your choice of words, they could very well ask you to leave and go to a hotel.
Something as small as the topic of household chores can divide a family, because we are more sensitive to emotions, feelings, and thoughts of family members. We tend to take things more personally when it comes from family. When a subject is broached severely, the reaction is likely to be severe as well. There are ways to approach a tough subject like this in a manner that will not create family dissension. I will outline those steps below, so you have a practical example of how to negotiate a tough subject with family. Below are also some tips on how to navigate negotiations with your family.
It’s Okay to Have Different Opinions in a Family
A person may be hurt, angry, and have feeling that they need to confront a family member about a topic. The question they need to ask themselves is “what would be the upside in broaching this family member about this topic” and “is it really your business”. If their motivation is something related to their personal life and they don’t play any role in the subject at hand, such as how a family member parents their children or how they treat their spouse, then they need to stay out of it.
All family members have different ways of doing things whether it is raising kids, cooking, spousal relationships, religion, etc. Just because people were raised in the same home doesn’t mean that they are similar at all. Family members can be as different as night and day. That’s okay. The world is interesting because of variety. Families sometimes have the hardest time accepting differences because they are in fact family, especially those who are blood related. They think for some reason that because they are family, they need to do things the same or think the same. However, this is not the case.
Everyone is different and has different ways of doing life, even if they are blood related. For example, Just because a sister goes with her husband and children to stay with their parents every Christmas doesn’t mean that another sibling automatically has to do the same. If they set out for their family to create a different tradition of celebrating Christmas morning at home with their own children, then these decisions should be embraced and respected.
Families must allow fellow family members to have different traditions and practices. There is no need for a confrontation or discussion about these things, as all are adults and choosing their own path, traditions, and ways of doing life. Differences are not only allowed in families, but should be recognized and respected by fellow family members.
There are far too many families being divided because they are in each other’s business and they don’t need to be. For example, an adult sibling may think that her sister feeds her own children incredibly poorly. They get junk food throughout the day and they eat nothing organic. Whereas the other sibling only eats organic food and all junk food is banned from their home. What would the upside of this sibling having the conversation with their sister about her habits in feeding her children? What is the likelihood of her actually changing the way she feeds her children? That would require a huge commitment on her part, so for her to implement real change and want to change it would more than likely take more than just another sibling’s opinion on the subject. There is not an upside if it is felt that they would not make any changes. Just making her aware that people know that she is feeding her children poorly is not going to create change. Everyone has a different opinion when it comes to feeding children.
Again, allowing for differences in the way family members parent their children, live life, and value different facets of life is all part of mature and healthy family relationships. Not only should family members be allowed to live their life how they want, their decisions should be respected. Confronting family members for their life choices that have no affect on other family members is unnecessary and typically creates damage to family relationships.
Think of Their Perspective Before You Even Broach the Subject
Putting oneself in another person’s shoes is essential to understanding them. People who are only looking at a situation from their own personal perspective and not taking into consideration the other person’s perspective, are subsequently likely to broach the family member in a highly biased manner.
Allowing for an openness and vulnerability in examining the situation from the other person’s perspective can be very enlightening. Family members must give their fellow family members the respect and love they deserve by trying to view life through their eyes and their situation. If they fail to do this and are thinking from only their own perspective, they are likely to damage the relationship with insensitive or inappropriate conversations.
Use Kindness and Softness in Your Approach
Soft is always better when it comes to talking about difficult things. Harshness puts people off and shuts them down. People will open up only if they feel safe and comfortable sharing with the other person. If they feel they are going to be blamed, judged, criticized, or treated unkindly, they will not be open to the discussion.
Kindness is not only tone of voice and the words chosen, but it also involves a conscious decision to leave any judgements out of the conversation. Judging the person will only make them defensive and therefore the person who broached the subject becomes the enemy. This is not what any family member would do intentionally if their desire is to have good family relationships.
Family members must speak in a way that they would want to be spoken to, which is with kindness and love, not judgement or harshness, in order to maintain healthy relationships within the family.
Avoid Harshness When Negotiating with Family
Blaming and Finger Pointing in the Form of “You” Statements
Blaming usually comes in the form of “you” statements. Cut that word out of your vocabulary when you are discussing something important or of a sensitive nature with family. When you feel the need to say “you”, change the context and thoughts by altering them to “I feel” statements. For example, if your sister wants to set a holiday gift exchange price to a minimum of $50 and your instinct is to say “you always expect everyone to spend way more than we can afford, we aren’t all as wealthy as you”. That “you” statement is pretty harsh and is likely to insight an argument.
Instead, change the thought and message into an “I feel” statement. This statement should not put any blame on the other party, but helps them to see your side of things. For example, a better statement would be “I feel uncomfortable with the $50 amount, as it is too much for our family at this time, since we have a strict holiday budget”. You could then follow it up by suggesting a different amount or asking if there is some room for negotiating the amount or doing a price range.
Be solution oriented, but don’t start with blaming or the entire conversation will blow up. You can get what you want with either scenario, but one is more damaging to the relationship. When you blame others and finger point you are alienating those you are pointing your finger at to blame. Therefore, relationships break down when you chose the route of blame. Take the high road and use “I feel” statements to help them understand your perspective compassionately.
Family members will often criticize because they see something wrong and they want to help fix the problem by pointing out what is wrong. Their intention of helping is good. However, the method is problematic because the recipient of criticism doesn’t see it as help. Instead, they see criticism as someone telling them what is wrong with them or what they are doing wrong. It doesn’t help them but makes them upset toward the person who is delivering the criticism. Criticism should be avoided altogether when negotiating with family.
Nobody wants to hear unsolicited advice. If they didn’t ask you for your opinion or advice, then don’t give it. Psychology Today explains that advice can come across as trying to control the person, or impinging on their freedom, as well as these other problematic motivations:
They suggest that the advice, justifiably or not, comes across to us as one-upmanship, or assertion of dominance, or criticism, or distrust, or failure to consider our own unique goals and priorities.
Find out more about how unsolicited advice can seriously hurt a relationship: This Is How You Worsen the Relationship Without Noticing
Ultimatums are a form of bullying. It is a way of twisting someone’s arm to do something by making the consequence so painful they have no other choice, than to comply. The real problem is that the other party didn’t make the choice on their own. They were forced or bullied into agreement by an ultimatums on the table.
Ultimatums are not fair and they only harm relationships in the long run because the party on the receiving side of the ultimatum is likely to feel they were forced into something.
Gossiping to Others About the Issue
Do not go to friends or other family members if you have an issue with someone in your family. You need to go directly to the person with whom you have an issue. Don’t gossip about the person behind their back. They may find out eventually that you were talking about them behind their back and they will feel betrayed.
Skip the gossip and go directly to the family member to discuss the subject at hand. Don’t involve others who have nothing to do with the situation.
If your end goal of the conversation is to “be right” or “to win”, your attitude is all wrong. This kind of attitude is not one that is conducive to healthy family relationships. You need to be more concerned about reaching a mutually agreed upon solution, which typically involves compromise. If you are all about being right, compromise won’t come to your mind.
Be flexible, humble, and allow yourself the vulnerability to be wrong. It happens to all of us. We can’t be right all the time. More often then not, a compromise can be reached if both parties are flexible and no one side is insistent on “being right” at the end.
Steps to Negotiate with Family and Maintain Healthy Relationships
1. Decide what to discuss beforehand and how to phrase things in the kindest, most compassionate manner.
This is also the time to ask yourself the following questions:
- What is the upside of discussing this topic?
- Is it any of my business?
If you feel that discussing the topic can lead to resolution and improvement in the relationship, plan to discuss the topic. If the topic has nothing to do with you, such as how your sibling raises their children or what color they want to paint their kitchen, then stay out of it.
Once you have decided the subject needs to be discussed, list the key points you want to go over with this person. Write down phrases for each of these key points that present the topic in a kind, compassionate, open, and understanding manner. For example, with the story at the beginning of the article you were told to imagine yourself moving in with your in-laws. They set unrealistic expectations for yourself and your children while living at their home. Here is a good way to approach this topic and some notes you could possibly jot down before talking to them:
- “I feel overwhelmed with all that is going on in our lives with the move, dealing with three children and how they are adusting to the move, so I was hoping we could discuss the expections you gave us”.
- “I feel compelled to help with the household duties, but I also feel I need to balance this with my responsibility to my children and husband”.
- “I would like to go over the list with you, so we can decide together which of these household duties take higher priority over others, so I can help where it is needed most.”
These “I feel” and solution oriented statements will give a good starting point for a discussion, that don’t place blame on anyone. Instead they are phrased to help the in-laws see your side of things. They are also phrased in a way that show a compromise is in mind already.
2. Ask for a good time and location to have the discussion.
Ask the person for a time and place to sit down to have a discussion. Be sure to include everyone involved in the issue. Don’t leave someone out if they are pertinent to the problem or solution. Make sure it is a location where you won’t have distractions. When you meet, put all electronics aside so you can focus on the discussion.
3. Talk, but listen more.
We all tend to talk too much. Say what needs to be said, but no more. Keep to the points that you outlined beforehand. Then listen to the other party. Before you respond, process the information and take some time to think before responding. Often in family negotiations people respond too quickly, especially as things get heated and the result is a heightened level of negative emotions.
Keep calm, talk slow, and think before speaking. Listen to the other party and let them know you want to hear their side and understand what they have to say. Use active listening methods to convey to the other party that you are understanding them. You do this by paraphrasing back to them the important points they have spoken. Here are some great tips for active listening if you want some additional insight on this topic: How to Master Active Listening
4. Stay focused on the subject.
Families have issues. A lot of them. Don’t allow other issues to interfere with the current negotiation. Stay focused with the issue at hand. Don’t go off on tangents or bring up other past issues. If the words you speak don’t help with the solution, don’t say them. If the other party goes off on a tangent, help kindly direct hem back to the current topic.
5. Seek to understand their side of things.
Compassion is key to reaching a resolution. Put yourself in their shoes and try to understand their perspective. When they speak, listen with compassion and an open heart. This is easier to do if emotions are not getting high and things’ not getting heated. It is important to help be a part of the calm. Let the other party know you are there to discuss things because you care for them and they are family. It is not about “winning” or “being right”.
6. Walk away if things get too heated.
When people start yelling, the issue will not be appropriately discussed and a solution will not be found. If things get too heated and people begin to yell, it is time to step back or walk away. Try again when everyone is calm and willing to talk in normal tones. Here are some good tips on dealing with someone who is yelling at you: The Best Way to React When Someone is Shouting at You in Anger
7. Find a compromise that appeases both sides.
Research from Harvard examined family negotiations and found the following:
A typical strength of family negotiations is that family members generally prefer to reach mutually acceptable outcomes in their negotiations.
Good families who love one another want to reach solutions when there is conflict. The goal is to find a solution that is acceptable for all parties involved. This is why discussion is needed to find out what is acceptable to each party, so a middle ground can be found.
No family is perfect and there’s no need to have a perfect family in which everyone has to agree with each other all the time. It’s okay to have different opinions and ways to approach things within a family. It’s about mutual respect and recognition with each other’s thoughts. If you find yourself in a situation where negotiation is needed with your family, try the steps I suggested and figure out what’s best for everyone together with your family members.
Featured photo credit: Unsplash Minjoo Son via unsplash.com
|Psychology Today: Unsolicited Advice: I Hate It, You Hate It; so Do Your Kids
|Harvard: Five Steps to Better Family Negotiations