Many people find that certain patterns appear when the holidays arrive and family time becomes a more regular part of their lives. Maybe every year a relative makes a comment about an aspect of your lifestyle. Perhaps you feel pressured to interact with someone who makes you uncomfortable. Or it could be that suddenly you are taking on more responsibilities than feel appropriate for you.
Calmly, but firmly stating what you do and do not want can improve your time with family by helping relatives understand your values and your needs. It additionally gives you the opportunity to explore a new type of family dynamic, one in which you demonstrate respect for yourself and encourage others to follow suit.
The first step in this process is to determine what you do or do not want to have happen this year. It is ideal to be able to figure this out before the issue arises because it can be difficult to rationally approach the problem when the family dynamic, and related emotions, are in full swing. Still, life is not always ideal and so simply putting aside some quiet time for yourself to reflect on what you need this year is always a good idea.
Once you have a sense of what you want to communicate, the next step is to figure out who you are directing your message to. Within your family's specific relationships, does it make sense to speak directly to the person you feel pressured by or does it make more sense to engage an intermediary?
Now that you have figured out what the issue is and who you want to speak with, let's talk about how best to deliver your message. Your options are typically: in person, by phone, email, or text. The benefit of speaking in person or by phone is that tone and other nonverbal cues can help engage your listener's empathy. Of course, the benefit of text or email is that you can feel more in control.
No matter your mode of delivery, the content of your message will take some time to prepare. One method for organizing your message is to use a technique from Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), a therapy created by Marsha Linehan. This technique is called by its acronym: DEAR MAN.
Hear is what you will be doing:
Describe - Very specifically describe the situation as you see it, so that your recipient understands exactly how you understand what is happening. This provides them the opportunity to correct any confusion, as well as to set a joint connection around the issue.
"Every year you ask me to host Christmas dinner. December happens to be a very busy time for me at work."
Express - Calmly express how this makes you feel.
"I feel stressed when I am trying to split my attention between hosting and work. I also worry that you will be angry with me if I say no."
Assert - Now state what you would like to have happen.
"I would like for you to host dinner this year."
Reinforce - As a reinforcement, explain how this will benefit the other person.
"I think you would also appreciate us spending time together if I'm less stressed and more focused on being with you."
And here is how you will be doing it:
Mindfully - Be conscious of how you are feeling and adjust your breathing, take a break, or soothe yourself if you start to become overwhelmed. Stick to the issue and don't let yourself be drawn into side arguments or defensiveness.
Appear confident - Before you start the conversation, picture yourself as confident and certain. Draw that image to mind throughout the discussion.
Negotiating - Be willing to give to get.
Implementing this technique will not guarantee success. We cannot change other people, but we can feel proud of ourselves for calmly and clearly stating our needs.
Feel free to reach out if you would like to further explore your family relationships and how best to engage with emotionally charged issues.