Vital Conversations: Holiday Edition – Family Boundaries

I don’t know about you, but something I have struggled with throughout my life is not always agreeing with my family on everything.  I have disagreed with family members on politics, how I like to spend my money, how far away I live from “home” and how I raise my kids.  It is absolutely ok for you to do things differently than other family members.  What is not ok is having to put up with constant nagging or guilt from family members about how you choose to live your life.  It is also not acceptable to be judging others and making them feel bad about their choices.  Let’s connect these situations with how boundaries can be set to fully enjoy family while not having to deal with feelings of guilt, stress or being bullied.  

Additional stress can arise during the holidays as a result of increased family interactions.  Family comes with a completely different set of dynamics than others in our lives.  One of my personal values is family.  With that said, I still have had to set boundaries within my family.  My immediate family comes first, and I prioritize them in all cases.  There are other dynamics that happen in families like disagreements between family members, one side of the family doesn’t like the other and these situations are further exacerbated by marriages, divorces and children.  It is important that decisions on how to spend your time during the holidays is decided based on bringing the most joy to the season for you.  Let go of guilt for not spending time with family members who cause more stress than it’s worth.  Any family member who makes you feel devalued or guilty does not have your best interest in mind.  Family members who truly love you will understand that your choices are not a reflection of you not loving them. 

Is this holiday season the year to have a vital conversation with someone in your family?  Have you been avoiding someone due to past happenings?  Wouldn’t it feel great to finally address the elephant in the room and be able to move forward without guilt?  If any of these situations resonate with you, it is time to have a vital conversation so you can get your concerns out in the open and hopefully find solutions to make everyone feel better about the situation and spending time together.

First, you can try to go into this holiday season with a completely different outlook and see what happens.  I challenge you to practice having positive assumptions about those people who have driven you nuts in the past.  Sometimes, by having positive assumptions alone we are in a different headspace and miraculously we don’t see the same flaws as before.  Definitely try this first and if that alone doesn’t work and something goes sideways, it’s time to have a vital conversation. 

Here we go! 

Step #1 – Plan Ahead – Start with getting yourself straight mentally.  You cannot have an effective conversation if you are emotional, mad or pissed off.  You need to find a way to clear your head and push out any negative feelings about the past.  Capture the facts.  What happened?  You’ll need to do better than “your attitude sucked last year.”  Words like attitude put people on the defensive.  Focus on behavior.  Here are some examples to describe attitude.

When I was talking about possibly moving to a new city, I saw you slouch in your chair, cross your arms and say, “ok”.  Something about that didn’t seem right.  What thoughts came to you when I said that? 

I asked for help with the dishes but when I turned around, I could hear stomping up the stairs.  Please help me understand what happened.

What is it that the person has done or said in the past specifically?  How did it make you feel?  Capture those thoughts for sharing during the vital conversation.

Plan for the conversation.  Determine a good time to meet with the person.  This is NOT over the dinner table with others in the room.  You may have to find time before or after family gatherings to meet 1:1 with the person to share your feelings.  The most important thing here is to not wimp out.  You must be courageous and have the conversation.  If you can’t get face to face when they are in town, ask them for a FaceTime call or some other way to talk. 

Step #2 – Start the encounter with brief niceties but don’t let the conversation get off track.  State the facts that you have already identified in step 1.  Avoid trigger words like “you”.  Do not drudge up everything from the past, only focus on the most recent events and how they have impacted you. 

Step #3 – Ask an open-ended question after stating the facts.  Depending on the situation, these might include:

  • What happened?
  • I want to get to a better place and believe you do too.  How can we make that happen? 
  • How can you help?
  • How can we move in a direction to fix this?
  • How can we improve our communication?
  • Tell me more about your point of view.     

Step #4 – Stop talking and start listening.  The listening I’m talking about here is active listening and not listening to formulate your response.  There may be a long pause or silence for a while.  If the other person has been active listening, it may take them a little while to formulate a response.  Silence is ok.  Do not jump in and try to solve the problem for them.  If you give potential solutions, they will not own it and this means they are not recognizing the problem and more importantly, committing to change.   

Step #5 – After listening, discuss options or the solution they have provided.  Recap what each of you are going to do next and by when to resolve the situation.  Both parties will need to do things differently for the solution to stick.

Step #6 – Do what you said you would do.  Maintain positive assumptions that behavior in the future from the family member is going to change.  If you only look for negative, you will find it.  Half of the solution is making sure you are doing your part to improve the relationship. 

Unfortunately, sometimes these vital conversations end up in a decision to sever relationships.  However, if after following the vital conversations model, an agreement can’t be reached that is acceptable to both parties, the parties are better without each other.  It takes two to make any relationship work.  If one party is not willing to commit long term to changing behavior, it is time to walk away.  This may be very difficult at first but over time and with boundaries and separation, the other person may come around and want to change in order to have you in their life.

I realize the thought of having conversations with people whom you have strong emotional connections to – either love or hate – can be really hard.  Be courageous and try it at least once.  I think you will find that having the conversation is hard at first but actually very freeing in the end because you will know where you stand and will know that you did everything in your power to make it right, without being bullied, abused or walked over.  I also believe that 95% of the time you are going to find a much better outcome as a result of having the vital conversation, so just go for it!

If I can help you talk through a specific situation and prepare for your conversation, please send me a note through the contact page or at Natalie  I’ll be happy to listen and assist (for free)! 

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2 thoughts on “Vital Conversations: Holiday Edition – Family Boundaries”

  1. Nice job. Only thing I can add is during the talking 1:1 times, make sure alcohol is not included. Often shaded people’s feelings and anxieties.
    Happy thanksgiving ?

    1. You are absolutely right! Thanks for the addition. It made me chuckle as I had forgot that alcohol might play into the holidays and “dealing” with family. Happy thanksgiving to you too!

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