Home. Family. Holidays.
Three words that can conjure up images of awkward family dinners, pursed lips, charged words, stiff-armed hugs, and dogs fed scraps of bitter resentment under the table.
And yet, there comes a time when, by the grace of God or some unforeseen courage, that you may be ready: to have that awkward conversation, to face the old ghosts haunting your family dynamics, to speak to the elephant in the room, that unclaimed centerpiece on the dining room table, mashing both the potatoes and the personalities around it.
How do we do it? How do we speak our truth and invite reconciliation, when we’re quaking in our boots, worried about rocking the boat, scared of being tossed off the family raft, and cast out to a wide open sea of unloved-ness?
Pre-amble: Love yourself.
Yes, you. Get clear on what needs of yours have been impacted by conflict in your family. In what ways have your needs for self-expression, love, acceptance, seeing and being seen, knowing and being known not been met, whether in a particular conflict, or in family dynamics ingrained over the years?
Name these needs. Honor them. Value them. Scream “I love you [need]” to the stars, and bow to the earth in humble acknowledgment of them. These are the doorways to your heart, and they are precious. You get to love them, claim them, and reclaim your power in the process.
You and your needs are beautiful, and always have been. It was an illusion that your family’s words or actions suggested otherwise.
#1: Begin the conversation with empathy for your family member.
After you ask for and receive agreement to have the conversation, start by focusing on your family member and their experience. Offer empathy for their side of the story. Show them that you “get” their world, their experience, their humanity, and what has motivated them to act or speak as they have.
Remember: empathy does not mean agreement! It doesn’t mean what they did or said was “right” or justified. It means you are offering an open-hearted attempt to “get” their world. It means they are a human being with needs that sometimes get expressed in tragic and off-putting ways, but that you’re willing to wonder at what innocent longing, deep down, may have motivated them them to act as they did.
Listen in their words for the “I didn’t know how.” Listen for the “I did my best.” Listen for the “please help me do it better next time.” Because they would say this if they could. If they could slough off years of deeply embedded muck and shame, they would in all likelihood hand you the keys to their heart, and let you hear these words whispering within.
#2: Share how hearing them impacts you.
Share the impact on you of hearing the pain in their experience. If anything arises in you with the looks of an apology, unpack that. Apologies so often reinforce the story of right and wrong, of guilt and shame, rather than get to the heart of what’s going on.
Tell them what hurts in you when they hurt. Tell them if you care, and how you would have liked (or would like in the future) to be there for them in ways you were not able to. Tell them the ways you wish you had acted/spoken/showed up that would have met your own values. Not theirs, but yours. Your needs, for example, for offering integrity, care, inclusion, acknowledgment, and understanding.
When you bring the conversation home, when you talk about the impact on you, this very often feels good to them. It builds credibility and trust, because it shows that you have an investment in their well-being.
#3: Count to a million, and then talk about your own experience.
Marshall Rosenberg, the founder of Nonviolent Communication, advises “counting to a million” before shifting the focus from empathy for another’s needs to expressing our own. We count to a million because, so often, the moment we open our mouths to speak about our version of what happened, the other person gets triggered and we’re back to square one. So go slowly here, checking with your family member to see if they feel heard, and if they do, then checking to see if they then feel willing to hear about you now. Once you have this assurance…
Share from your heart. To the best of your ability, share the impact of their actions and words on you in ways that tell them about you, rather than your judgments of them.
For instance, rather than say something like: “You pissed me off when you were unreliable and went back on your word,”
Try instead, “I felt sad when you didn’t call and said you would, because I really wanted to trust in our connection.”
In other words, keep the focus on you. How did you feel? What were you needing and wanting?
Their listening is a gift. Treat them as a guest in your heart. Show them the rooms inside, the places you perhaps kept off limits until now because they held your dearest needs and desires for connection, for understanding, for companionship, for acceptance. Invite your guest in, bring them tea, and allow them to “ooh” and “ahhh” alongside you when they catch a glimpse of the luminous beauty of your needs.
Take breaths. Pause. Check to see if they’re still with you.
Ask for reflection if you don’t know if you’ve been clear. Ask if they heard judgment or blame in your words. And if they do, return to empathy. Start again. Have patience. The practice of reconnecting takes time. And gentleness.
Most importantly, keep saying the words, “I love you” to yourself, for your courage and bravery to let yourself be seen. “I love you.” “I love you.” When you begin to tremble, remember that you are beautiful, and that your needs are worthy of the deepest care, within and without. The more you know this, the more they will open to you.
When your bodies are finally relaxed, when your breath is flowing smoothly, and the two of you finally feel heard and complete, seek restorative action. Brainstorm ways you can be together in the future that more effectively meet both of your needs, that show you care about each other, and that that take one another’s worlds and hearts into consideration.
In this way, you invite a new understanding to arise, a new love to blossom, a new relationship to be born between you.
Want support? Talk to me about family reconciliation counseling.
Enjoy this introduction to Nonviolent Communication by its founder, Marshall Rosenberg.