Learn a few tips on how to manage a difficult relationship with an opinionated family member during the holidays.
by Tessa Bender
The holidays can be a wonderful time to see family, connect with loved ones, and get a break from work. However, many of us have had the experience of gathering with family members who have very strong opinions that differ from our own. It can be helpful to have a strategy to deal with your opinionated family. This way, you can avoid breaking up relationships or causing unnecessary drama. There are a few practices I’ll share below that you can use during the holidays or any time you’re around someone you don’t get along with so well.
Try Listening Before Responding
“People start to heal the moment they feel heard” – Cheryl Richardson
It’s easy to get triggered by something that a family member says that you disagree with. This is especially true if politics comes into the dinner table conversation. Our natural response when we’re triggered by something is the ‘fight flight or freeze’ response in our brain. This is because we perceive what they’re saying as a threat to our values or beliefs. This perception comes from our own thoughts. These thoughts are often based off what we want to see or what we assume is true, rather than being rooted in what is actually true. With this in mind, it can be helpful to pause when you’re feeling triggered and take a deep breath. This will also buy you some time to fight the natural urge to cut them off and scream your beliefs at them as loud as you can.
Once you’ve taken that breath, keep your attention present by engaging in a non-judgmental listening. Your mind may be full of opinions, but see if you can hold the judgement so you can clearly listen to what they are saying. Our judgment can get in the way of mindfully listening to someone. This in turn cuts off any ability to have a dialogue. Mindful Listening is a crucial step to learning how to deal with opinionated family.
If you make it through the first step of switching off judgement and switching on presence, see if you can add a dose of empathy. Empathy is our natural capacity to look at the world through someone else’s eyes. This is incredibly difficult to do if we continue to harshly judge them through our own lens of the world. However, our brains are actually hard-wired for empathy, but that empathy lessens if we perceive someone to be in a different “group” than us, whether that be political, religious, racial, etc. The good news is we can conjure up some empathy by connecting to our common humanity; what is true for all beings. Remember, everyone is seeking to be happy. Each human expresses that that in different ways based on their conditioning and their childhood.
So, if you’re in this conversation and you whole-heartedly disagree, see if you can drop the judgement for a moment. Try to understand why this person may feel this way. As we are all seeking to be happy, this person in some way has the belief that this way of thinking will make them to be happy. This is due to their own social conditioning and depends on how they were raised, where they live, the media sources they pay attention to etc.
Having empathy for someone doesn’t mean that you agree with them. It just means you can try to understand the reasons they may believe what they do. This is the key to building bridges, and learning how to live in relation to all humans on this planet. In the end, all of our actions affect the collective in some way. A wonderful practice in empathy is to repeat to someone what you perceive them to be feeling about something. You can do this by saying, “What I understand through what you’re saying is that you feel _____________ about ______________, is that right?”. This gives them an opportunity to self-reflect and see if what they are saying and what they are feeling is in tune.
Say What You Can and Let It Go
If you’ve take the time to mindfully listen with empathy, you may now feel like you want to respond. First, check your intention. Notice if your intention to respond is simply to fight back or to make them feel bad about what they believe.
A great model of mindful speech is before speaking, ask yourself if what you’re about to say meets these three qualifications:
- Is it true?
If what you’re sharing is not based in truth and honesty, there is no use in sharing it. It is important to check if you’re sure what you’re saying is true. You can be most sure by checking in with yourself and expressing how you feel. No one can doubt the truth your feelings as you’re the only one who knows what they are.
- Is it useful?
You may be able to tell right away if your family member is willing to listen or not. Some people like to hear the sound of their own voice and are genuinely not open to other’s opinions. This is an important question to ask, is it worth your time engaging in conversation with this person. If you feel passionate about the subject, the answer may be yes.
- Is it kind?
It is important to note that kindness does not equal niceness. For example, if you have an uncle who makes a racist remark, the kind thing to offer in that moment may be to help him reflect on whether his words may be harmful to others. This may not be the ‘nice’ thing to say in this instant, but it is the kind thing to stand up for marginalized people. This question is important as well because most people will not listen to you or change themselves if they feel you’re there to shame them. We are all connected whether we like it or not and the way you treat others matters.
How to Deal With Opinionated Family: Lead By Example
So, what is the moral on how to deal with your opinionated family? No matter how much you want to change someone, you cannot. They have to want to change on their own. All you can control is how you show up and lead by the example you want to set. If you want to live a life that is inclusive, compassionate, and caring for all, set that example when you’re with the ones that are more difficult to be around. You never know how something you said or did will affect someone years down the line.