Understanding Extended Families
The funny thing about extended families …
… is that the further you diverge from your nuclear family, the crazier things get. If you’ve ever been to a Christmas eve gathering with your maternal aunt complaining about the tacky gift she received from her sister-in-law last year, or your second cousin getting drunk and inappropriately boisterous, you know what I’m talking about.
Because of the emotional bond that holds our families together, any conflict that occurs is usually loaded with past grievances and hurts. This is why holidays like thanksgiving and Christmas Eve are both the most dreaded and the most cherished part of our working year.
There is a sense of obligation to attend that holds us together. In a society where loneliness has risen to epidemic portions, mandatory family gatherings may be the only situation in which many of us put ourselves out there and step out of our comfort zone.
The lack of annoying people that you have to put up with, has eroded our sense of patience and ability to stay calm, committed and resilient in conflict situations. So naturally when there is conflict among extended family, our first gut instinct is to back away and cut that person off from our life.
Then when people get lonely, they look for superficial thrills, posting about their paragliding adventure on Facebook or taking constant selfies on instagram, just to feel like they are connected to the outside world, that they belong someplace, that they are part of a group. Do you see the irony in this?
I’m asking you today: to embrace the annoying people, the critics, the people that make you feel uncomfortable. A lot of times, this comes in the form of relatives and extended family. Nothing will inspire personal growth like an annoying aunt’s criticism. Nothing like grandma’s encouragement to help you get through growing pains with your toddler. Nothing like being compared to an obnoxiously successful cousin to inspire you to focus on advancing your career. In order to learn and grow, we must force ourselves to face uncomfortable situations. And nothing is more uncomfortable than a family gathering…
The role of power
Power is the undercurrent that runs through all human conflict. The way human beings (or any other biological/animal societies) function socially is through power play. We learn early and often about the different roles of power that people hold. We also learn that power is fluid. That it can be given and taken based on the perceptions of those around us. You either find where you fit in, or for the more ambitious, you seize power by manipulating or controlling other people. Power is just as universal as conflict in this regard.
If both power and conflict are universal, then it stands to reason that power lays and conflicts are inherent in the family dynamic. In fact, the family and/or extended family dynamic is there we first encounter the ebb and flow of power and conflict. Some of us grow up feeling that our parents have wrongly manipulated us using threats, punishments and harsh words to discipline us. This ‘betrayal’ can lead to destructive patterns of resolving conflict, often with one or both parties striving to regain the lost ‘power’ at any cost. This is a pattern of conflict resolution many of us carry beyond our birth families and into our own later lives.
Another thing to note about this power-play inherent to family conflicts is that it stems from a fundamental, two-pronged fear:
1. Those with more power than us can harm or control us, leaving us unable to defend ourselves.
2. Those with less power than us are just waiting to pounce on us at the first sign of weakness, making us more likely to fail.
Even in intimate and family situations, this fear-induced power-play is often hidden. As a society, we are also conditioned to value honesty, strength and courage, so anyone feeling these insecurities will naturally try to hide it. However, such covert insecurities can lead us further into destructive patterns of conflict resolution when everyone involved denies the problem, or worse, refuses to accept their role in creating the conflict, blaming others instead. This creates a vicious cycle of conflict, lack of ownership and a deep, festering mistrust.
So what would you do to bridge conflicts and set the stage for positive resolution?
Two things are essential in order to answer this question:
1. Building solid alliances with your family mediators
2. Finding common interests
Forging strong relationships with the peace-keepers in your family will help you thwart conflicts and redirect the family’s focus on positive things early, often, even before the conflict starts. Also, finding common goals can help you survive a difficult family gathering by uniting you to solve a mutual problem rather than dispersing alliances and pushing everyone apart. For people you know you will have to repeatedly interact with, you can choose whether you want to make things even more miserable – or find a way to co-exist.
And this choice will make all the difference between making your family gatherings a source of joy, or a source of heartache.
In our soon to be published e-book you will find tools to help you build alliances with your family members and find common interests which may help you ward off difficult situations. Stay tuned!
A few years ago I frequently took the GO train to downtown Toronto for work. It was mostly a pleasant ride. However, this one lady would push everyone in her frenzy to disembark every time the train pulled into Union Station. Mostly I stayed out of it but one day, she pushed me. I decided to call her out on it. Right there, on the platform, she started screaming out threats about pushing me down the stairs. A security guard caught my eye and came over. We explained the situation to him with several other passengers confirming that this lady had been very aggressive for the past few weeks. The security guard let her go with a warning. That lady was a total stranger. My only concern in this situation was to speak out against her aggression and do what I thought was “right” in defending myself. I did not care at all about whether our relationship would suffer as a result of my speaking out.
In contrast, when I moved to a new country, I saw a lot of things that were not “right”. Living with five other people, conflict was both healthy and inevitable. The difference was that I actually cared about my relationship with these people. So I had to force myself to look past huge hurdles like emotional extremes, power imbalances and a starkly different worldview and find a way to get along with them. I learned an important lesson – from siblings to parents to spouses to kids, our closest relationships are the trickiest to handle.
Strangers VS Loved Ones
When it comes to our closest relationships, unresolved conflicts can lead to an ongoing skirmishes and resentment. When this everyday stress becomes pervasive, it not only damages your relationship and self-esteem but also robs you of a potentially powerful support system (your loved ones). Conflict with people you care about is very different form conflict with people who are transient in your life like the cashier at your local drugstore or the rude lady pushing you on your commute to work.
Conflict with loved ones is trickier to handle because we usually DO care about our relationship enough to want to make it last. It is also likely that your affection for your loved one(s) compels you to keep their best interests in mind. So mutual trust and affection are essential to establishing and maintaining healthy long term relationships. However, in times of conflict, mutual understanding is the first facet of your relationship to be dismissed.
Impact of Different Conflict Management Styles
In a conflict situation with a loved one, your relationship will take the brunt of the damage especially if one of both of you are constantly minimizing the other person’s feelings. We have all fallen into patterns of aggression, lack of sensitivity or lack of courtesy in a domestic argument at one point or another. Unconsciously or even on purpose, we all tend to do it. However, not many of us are aware that these toxic patterns of interaction set up a dangerous power play dynamic – the effects of which can linger for a long time after the conflict has been resolved.
While displays of insensitivity, aggression and power struggles are damaging to your relationships with loved ones, avoidance of conflict is also equally, if not more damaging to your relationship. Always striving to smooth things over and please the other person inevitably breeds resentment if you are always bending over backwards for your loved one. Ironically, the family member you are trying to accommodate is simultaneously being conditioned to be selfish and insensitive to your preferences because you are always putting their needs ahead of yours. When this happens, the trust in your relationship is damaged as well as your own personal sense of self-worth. Rather than engaging in patterns of aggression or accommodation, an honest, respectful (both to yourself and to the other person) and non-manipulative approach can strengthen your relationship even in times of conflict.
However, in order to reach a respectful, honest and non-manipulative relationship dynamic, both parties need to do certain internal work first. Experts of often talk about open communication, negotiation and compromise but in order to act on these peace-keeping values, you need to create the emotional and mental space for them first. Here are some Do’s and Don’ts of overcoming conflict with your loved ones:
Has anyone else noticed how friendships are becoming more and more transient in our hyper-connected lives?
Instead of a big fight, argument or heated discussion, friendships now fizzle out because of tiny little falling outs – your friend didn’t call or you forgot to wish them on their birthday or you simply stopped calling, writing or meeting. Most of the time, the issue just festers, unaddressed. IF you want to be more proactive in your social relationships, try the following suggestions whenever you are in an awkward situation with a friend:
I used to be a straight shooter until I was plunged into the middle of a million strange people and forced to interact with them. I noticed how some people would gossip incessantly. Repelled at first, I eventually began to see how they would get short-term positive results, as the two gossiping people became “friends”. So I started doing it too. Much to my surprise, the initial ‘bonding’ your experience when you gossip with someone quickly turns into an acute sense of mistrust. If a person can spread negativity about someone else, who knows what they will be sewing behind your back about you?
It took me a while to figure out that gossip actually harms you the most – not the person you are gossiping about who is likely oblivious to your back-biting. So when you fight with friend, avoid gossiping or talking about them to another person in a complaining way. Just don’t go down that slippery slope.
See Others’ perspective
In any fight, the challenge is to try to understand it from the other person’s perspective. What if they’re wrong, you say? Even if they are wrong, understanding their perspective will help you understand how to approach the issue with them. This is especially true when you have a fight and someone is sending negative energy to you. When someone sends you negative every, instead of sending them negative energy back, try sending them positive energy instead. Thwart the vicious cycle of mistrust.
One way you can send them positive energy is to try to understand their situation and empathize with them. This doesn’t mean you give up your views and parrot theirs. Instead, show them compassion and they will be that much more willing to return that sense of understanding.
Ever get into a power struggle with a friend? You’re arguing, you’re sure they’re wrong and you’re waiting for that apology so you can forgive them? And wanting. And waiting. They never reach out to you because they feel equally strongly that you were wrong and they were right.
Be that powerful person who initiates resolution. Even if it intimidates you a little bit. Be that powerful person who says “I know we don’t agree on some things and may even be angry at each other, but lets make this work!”
Give them space
If your friend is too angry to talk, don’t hound them. Give them space to calm down. Reach out and let them know once that you’re willing to talk it out. If they genuinely care about the friendship, they will eventually reach out to you when they are ready.
When they do reach out to you, don’t start tooting your own grievances right away. Listen patiently. When I first got married, my husband’s infinite patience with errant employees, friends and even relatives drove me crazy. The other person would be spewing heated nonsense in his face that was none of his fault, and all he would do is nod, ask questions and entertain that load of nonsense like it was the most important thing ever. I thought he was being timid and unassuming, but in retrospect, I noticed something wonderful. Although he was not aggressive in that heated moment, people always apologized sheepishly afterwards. And boy, did they respect him. His ability to stay calm in the moment and listen to people thoroughly so they felt heard made him more powerful than any aggressive, fist-waving, red-faced human being.
Its natural in any conflict to get fixated on all the things the other person is doing wrong. But pointing fingers and accusing someone does nothing other than further alienate you. No, spewing those caustic words hovering in your head will not “set them straight”. Accusing someone, even if its their fault will only make the conflict fester and close off communication.
Conflicts are temporary. Children know intrinsically that conflicts are inevitable and transient in our lives. We adults often forget.
The other day I watched my daughter fight with another child on the playground over a couple of sand toys. The battle for the sand bucket and spade was fierce and brutal – punches flew, screams emerged until we broke them apart.
The adults around were all nervous for a long time after, watching for a fight that needed any intervention, meanwhile the kids had long forgotten about it. Once we broke them apart, they promptly proceeded to hold hands, climb up the big blue slide backwards and then tumbling back down down, giggling, as we adults watched nervously.
Many of us have learned to hold on to conflicts, grudges, hurts and disagreements long after the inciting incident has dissipated. A lot of this emotional baggage clogs up our consciousness and hampers our ability to think, learn, function and live.
It also hampers our ability to let go of the negativity that often surrounds conflicts. Most importantly, it costs us the opportunity to take advantage of the learning that ensues whenever we are caught up in the middle of a conflict.
Opportunity for change
Conflicts aren’t just opportunities for learning, they are also opportunities to bring about change. Often, we put up with things that we don’t necessarily agree with or enjoy.
When a conflict arises, that’s probably the first thing that comes to our mind. We recount the reasons why the person is wrong or why the situation makes us unhappy. But rather than merely complaining, what if we use that interaction as a medium of communication in order to change that thing we don’t like, or to improve something we think could be done better?
In order to use conflicts as an opportunity for change, however, we need to think about how we will position ourselves.
3 Proven Steps to Positioning Yourself Right
Think. Anticipate. Execute.
An unnamed entity in my family is really good at positioning themselves whenever they anticipate that a conflict will arise out of a particular situation. While the rest of us go into any conflict situation unarmed, often unaware, this person is able to anticipate the events with such acquity that it almost looked like magic to me. Until I tried it.
The first few times this happened, I was awkward and unsure, but the more I did it, I realized how this was a learned skill like any other. So how exactly does it work?
Assess the situation and brainstorm the outcomes that could happen.
The first few times, you might have to sit down and list all the possibilities with actual pen and paper. As you get better with it however, you will be able to do it promptly in your head.
The purpose of this step is to train your brain to hone in on the possibilities of the situation as they relate to the outcome that you want.
Anticipation is not just anticipating the other’s actions, but also finding a common thread that ties your own goal into the situation.
Going back to my family member, they often word their proposals in a very careful, planned way so as to sound like the course of action they want is in our mutual interest even though it may be benefiting them the most. While some may consider this manipulative, the fact remains, that not many of us want to hear the cold, hard, conflict-ridden and harsh truth. Most of us would rather get along and avoid conflict.
Afterall, what is more important- to get along and resolve the issue in an amicable way (that also happens to benefits you), or to feel a sense of empowerment because you were “right” and you showed the other person a ‘truth’ or two about life.
Remember, truth and correctness are subjective. In any human interaction, your truth will always be slightly different from mine. Your sense of right and wrong will be different too. Your truth is just as true to you as mine is to me.
So instead of being hard headed about what you perceive to be “true” why not focus on a solution that is both amicable and beneficial?
Once you’ve done the mental work of preparing for an imminent conflict, it is time to execute.
In order to overcome conflict, your delivery must be authentic, if nothing else. Often, this above mentioned family member will try so hard to convince me that helping them or doing something is in my own interest, that it turns me off from the whole sordid affair and I end up saying no just for the principle of it.
No one likes to be manipulated. If people see through your ruse to get them to do something you don’t want to do, its game over. You’ve lost their precious trust because everything you say, for the rest of the interaction, they will view through a lens of suspicion.
You want to position yourself in the best way possible so when conflict arises, you’re armed and ready to get the outcome that you desire.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series.
Challenge yourself today
So here’s your challenge for today – come up with a plan to create and maintain strong, healthy boundaries. Setting boundaries is so much more than just learning to say no. People with healthy boundaries not only identify and nurture their own boundaries, they also respect and advocate for others’ boundaries. For when you create an environment where others can empower themselves, it invariably also strengthens your own personal power.
To get you started on your “Healthy Boundaries” challenge, here are three ways in which you can strengthen your boundaries:
Mind Your Choice of Words
Sometimes all it takes to set clear boundaries is your subtle choice of words. You don’t have to negotiate, argue or stand your ground every time. Just being clear with your words can solve a lot of boundary problems without having to change any other aspect of your relationship.
When I went back to my clinical placement the following week, I still had to answer call bells. Setting boundaries for myself in that situation meant that I let the patient know that I will pass on the message to their nurse. With the nurses, I delivered the message with a phrase like “Okay, so you’ll take it from here right?” Or “Ok so I’ll leave you to it” or “Just wanted to draw your attention”. That sent a very direct message. Not only did it demonstrate that we were on the same team and that I was happy to help, but phrasing it like that also allowed me to draw a clear line of responsibility and pass the issue back to the primary person responsible for the patient – the nurse. Sometimes, you don’t even have to put up a fight or explain why you won’t do something. If you are clear about your agenda for the situation, setting explicit boundaries can help you come to mutual decisions without having to butt heads with other people even though they may have different a personal agenda.
Number Your Acts of Kindness
Sometimes, our conditioning runs so deep that we don’t even notice how many times a day we are breaching our own boundaries in our need to please and help others. A strategy that helped me gain back my power was toset a limit for how many freebie acts of kindness I will execute on any given day day. At clinical, if someone catches me free after the two bed baths I have decided I will do for the day, I’ll be clear, honest and just neutrally state that I actually have a lot of tasks pending that I haven’t been able to get around to because of the two bed baths I’ve already done. Then, I wish that nurse luck saying “I hope you find someone else to help you”. You will find over time that even though initially this sort of language and firmness feels awkward at first, the more you practice this sort of healthy communication, people come to expect and appreciate such frankness from you. The first time I said this politely, the floor nurse just stared at me. Over time though, she learned to catch me early on in the day for any help she needed and was infinitely more grateful for my help compared to when I used to help with bed baths all day. So limit your acts of kindness. The scarcity alone will make your help seem like a precious commodity. When people respect your time and effort, they also appreciate your boundaries and honour them.
Give yourself credit
Sometimes, we keep ‘helping’ people to the point that they take us for granted. Obviously family members are the most guilty of this habit, but often, even at work this dynamic comes into play. After a while, people stop noticing how much you’re going out of your way to help them. In order to make it clear to the other person that I am doing them a favour, I’ve learned to voice the benefits they are deriving from my company and support in a positive way like “I hope my effort helped you, I know how rough its been for you lately”. I recently went all the way after a social event to drop a friend home. Not that I minded, but since I wanted her to realize how for out of my way I went to drop her, I added something subtle into the conversation like “I’m glad you didn’t take the crowded subway at this time, it would have taken you an hour and a half to get home.” To some, it may seem like digging for compliments. The more you do this though, you will start to notice the positive air of balance in most of your relationships. The best part is that after you do this for a while, you start to notice yourself how much you’re helping others. That does two things – raise your self-esteem, and also helps you appreciate how valuable your help is to others. Someone with high self-esteem and a personal sense of worth is less likely to have his or her boundaries violated and personal agenda hijacked.
Once you set an example, others will tend to follow your footsteps and appreciate you more. Often, subtle change is more than enough to turn the tides in your personal life and nudge you towards healthier ways of working, playing and interacting with others.