Holidays recently have driven many families to experience strain like never before. We love each other and want our time together to be warm, but we may not be communicating with each other in the way that allows special moments to unfold. I have coached thousands of people of all ages, and I believe the foundation of how to cultivate good relationships is self-regulation.
When the climate gets too hot, a lot of families set out guidelines about what can and can’t be discussed at the table, in front of the kids, or in the house at all. But is avoidance really a solution? Can we trust each other enough to have a conversation without it devolving into a yelling match or wounded feelings?
The most important skill for getting along in any community is kindness, and it’s time that we go back to the basics and reframe the way we approach the people in our lives—especially our loved ones.
What’s Behind Compassion, Kindness and Perspective? Self-Regulation
Self-regulation is the ability to remember your intentions and to manage your body, mind and emotions in pursuit of the goal. If your intention is to be kind, you must manage what you say and do so you follow through on that intention. Self-regulation allows you to resist impulses, control your words and actions, calm yourself, hold back, and choose words over fists. People with the ability to self-regulate are more able to strive for a goal and attain it. It is an essential social skill for all aspects of your life.
Holidays: Self-Regulation or Arguments?
1. Assume Best Intentions
During your holiday conversations, validate the feelings and emotions of both those you agree with and those you do not. You can say, “Interesting, I hear you. That must feel hard for you.” As you express your opinions, remember to focus on the kindness, compassion, acts of love, affection and respect your relative has shown you for years. John Gottman’s work shows that it takes 5 positive interactions to overcome one negative interaction and therefore its crucial to remember that what you say can damage your relationship.
2. Step Into Your Relative’s Shoes
Try to understand her point of view. Don’t make assumptions about their motivations and perspective. Practice self-regulation by asking yourself, “What could be going on in the other person’s life? What is the other person’s situation? What do I know about her motivation, values and intentions?” Listen, reflect and reserve judgement; you might even come to find insight you did not anticipate.
3. Watch Your Tone and Dismissive Comments
Emotions often bubble up into our tone and comments. Name calling and zingers will not build a bridge to understanding. If your intention is to speak to your family with respect, take self-regulation steps like breathing deeply and pausing before responding to ensure your tone remains neutral. Avoid using words like always and never and avoid bold statements just to make a point. Make a plan in advance to respond to someone who does not follow this advice and may become aggressive to you, for instance saying, “I really hope we can keep this conversation respectful,” or “I am hearing you become frustrated, lets continue to try to understand each other.”
Active listening means you are interested and are hearing the other person’s point of view – without judgement. A good exercise in advance of the holiday is to consider what listening and speaking compassionately looks like. Avoid interrupting or waiting for your chance to speak your opinion. Make eye contact, check your body language and facial expressions. Neutralize the conversation by using reflective listening by recapping what the person said and making empathetic comments like, “That must be hard,” or “Now I understand why you think this way.” Listening to someone can help relieve their suffering. Be a shoulder to lean on.
5. Defuse Emotional Flooding
When you feel upset, emotions can get flooded and hijack your brain and behavior. Self-regulate by paying attention to your body signals. Where do you typically feel heightened emotions rising in your body? What does it feel like when you are angry, anxious? What does it feel like to lose control? Do you get flushed, feel a stomach ache, tingling in your arms and legs? Use mindfulness to help manage your emotions by breathing in and out, pausing before speaking, chewing slowly, and grounding yourself by placing your feet on the ground and noticing how your legs feel.
6. Don’t Pressure or Influence
Holidays are not a time for educating or changing someone’s mind. There is no need to cajole, shame, scold or coerce. Instead, communicate better by asking questions to understand their side of things. You can decide how you feel about it once the visit is over and you have some physical and emotional distance.
Now more than ever, we need to be reminded of skills to listen, show respect and empathize. Practice these social skills with gusto. There are probably many areas where you agree or where you have a mutual fondness – even if you have to reach as far back as a shared favorite movie or family memory – than you don’t. Reconnecting with that touchstone comes with listening, really hearing the perspective of another person and trying to support another.
Self-Regulation Deeper Dive
More actionable advice, exercises and videos can be found in the Store
Havening Technique – by Dr. Ronald Ruden, works incredibly well with self-regulation
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Steps for Joining a Group Video – Step by step details to comfortably and successfully join a group
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