An excerpt from Overcoming Your Difficult Family: 8 Skills for Thriving in Any Family Situation
Family communication is often murky, negative, and hurtful. Much remains unsaid or half-said; and the things that are said are likely to be delivered with a critical edge. Surprisingly often, when someone in a family speaks, someone else in the family gets hurt. You can’t change this dynamic single-handedly, but you can become an instrument for change.
Waiting for someone else in your family to begin communicating well won’t work. If you wait for your child to reveal what’s really on her mind, she’s likely to continue keeping her fears, frustrations, and problems a secret. If you wait for your mate to start the communication ball rolling, you’ll have another long wait coming. While it’s true that every family member has a duty to communicate well, someone has to start. Let that person be you.
It’s important that you say things directly, in short, simple, clear sentences. Saying things indirectly or at great length often means that you feel you don’t have a leg to stand on, that you are ambivalent about your message, or that you hope the family member you’re talking to won’t discover your hidden agenda. It is better to be clear before you speak, know what you want to say, trust that you have the right to communicate, and then deliver your message simply and directly.
Here are some examples of clear, direct speaking:
- “You’ve been spending a lot of extra time at work. Does that mean that we have a problem?”
- “You seem to have much less homework this year than last year. Is that the case? Or are you less motivated this year?”
- “I want to stop working and start a home business. I know that has a lot of ramifications, but I’d like us to talk about it.”
- “We’ve been having sex pretty infrequently. I wonder what’s up.”
- “You and your sister have been fighting a lot recently. Can you tell me what’s going on?”
- “I feel like we need a vacation, but I know we don’t have money put aside for that. Can we talk about whether we have any vacation options?”
Being direct isn’t the same as being blunt or mean. Always leave room for kindness in the spaces between words. By your tone, your inflection, your body language, and by the words themselves, you can communicate the fact that you have something to say but that you don’t mean to hurt, insult, or criticize the other person. If you pay attention to being both direct and kind, you will grow stronger as a communicator and also invite more love into every family interaction.
Ceremony: Gaining Clarity
When you feel a lack of clarity about some situation in your family life, write on a sheet of paper, “There’s something going on that I don’t understand.” Close your eyes and breathe regularly for a minute or two. Don’t strain to gain clarity or to understand. Just relax. Then open your eyes and write below your first sentence, “I think what’s going on is ___ ,” and see how you want to complete that sentence. If nothing comes, or if what comes doesn’t seem to be quite right or on point, repeat the ceremony. Close your eyes again, and breathe regularly. Open them after a few minutes and write out that sentence again: “I think what’s going on is ___ ,” and see how you want to complete it. If nothing comes, try this ceremonial exercise another time or two. If you gain some clarity, excellent! If not, congratulate yourself for showing up, and pledge to continue your efforts at gaining clarity.
Eric Maisel, PhD, is a retired family therapist, an active life coach, and the author of more than fifty books including his latest, Overcoming Your Difficult Family. He has been quoted or featured in a variety of publications, including Martha Stewart Living, Redbook, Glamour, Men’s Health, the San Francisco Chronicle, and Self. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. www.EricMaisel.com