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How to better enjoy family members during the holidays

Holidays can be stressful, not just because of all the shopping, cooking or traveling, but also because getting together with your family may bring up the old hurts and unresolved conflicts. Parents find it difficult to connect with their grown children and vice-versa. Sibling rivalry continues way into adulthood adding to the complexities of family reunions. And yet, it's possible to enjoy connecting with our family members. To do that, we need to be prepared and set an intention for a harmonious and enjoyable time together. Having recently worked with a number of people to help them resolve long-standing family conflicts, I compiled a list of seven powerful tips for all of us to remember and use this holiday season.

1. Resist the temptation to offer unsolicited advice. There is nothing wrong with giving advice; the catch is to give it when the other person wants it. When your grownup son or daughter shares with you about their struggles and difficulties, chances are what they really want is empathy. We all want to be heard and understood. It's not enough to listen, what really matters is that the other person feels heard. Even though we can't ever know for sure what it's like to be in the shoes of another, the best we can do is to make an effort to understand what they are going through. It's this genuine effort to understand one another that makes all the difference. It is helpful to reflect our understanding of what the other person is saying for two reasons: First, to make sure we are following what they are telling us, and second, to let them know that we are listening. Once you have verified that the other person feels heard and understood, you may ask if they would like to hear some suggestions you have, or if they want to brainstorm possible solutions together. Remember to ask before offering any advice. If it's wanted, it will be appreciated.

2. Don't criticize others. This is easy to say and hard to do. Our criticism is even more frustrating to the other person than unsolicited advice. Think about it: Sometimes your family members may ask you for advice, but they never ask to be criticized. We criticize the other person if we think they should be doing something different, as if we know what's best for everyone. Whether it's your adult child, your parent or sibling, chances are they want to make their own choices in life and have those choices be respected. Instead of criticism, make an effort to understand all the reasons behind the other person's choices. It's OK to express your feelings about their choices, but if you want to create connection you need to do it in a way that does not imply they are wrong. Remember, when we say the other person is wrong, we block the flow of connection and goodwill between us.

3. But see through their criticism of you. What if the other person is critical of you? You are not going to create connection by getting angry in return. Learn to see past their criticism to understand what they really want. If it's coming from a parent, criticism might be an unskilled expression of their concern for your well-being. If it's coming from your grown child or your sibling, criticism might be an expression of their own pain, perhaps because of some past unresolved hurts. It might be simply a cry for empathy. Responding with empathy is the best thing we can do, but it takes intentions and skills to be able to do it. Remember, if you learn to see through the critical remarks and understand what needs lie behind them, you may get valuable information and insight that will bring your relationship closer.

4. Choose topics of interest to both of you. Resist the temptation to talk at length about your new truck, the house renovations or the price you paid for your home insurance if these are of no interest to the other person. Bring up the topic briefly and assess whether the other person is interested before you continue with it. Sometimes you will know by sensing and paying attention to their reaction, and sometimes you may need to ask if they want to know more about it. Talking about your hopes and dreams for the future, things you are excited or passionate about, or sharing what you appreciate about your life and each other is likely to engage the other person on a deeper level. Reminiscing together about the past will add to the warmth and closeness. Remember, connection is created when both people are engaged in the conversation and it's damaged by polite pretending of interest where there is none.

5. Don't enter without knocking. This is obvious when we refer to closed doors and less obvious when we refer to private parts of our inner life. If you have not seen someone for a while, begin by warming-up slowly rather than jumping in to inquire or comment about their most vulnerable issues. Especially with our family members, we all want to have a choice of how much to share and when. It's a balancing act to connect on a deeper level, while respecting everyone's privacy. If you are interested in a particular topic but suspect it might cross a boundary, express your hesitation up front and ask if the other person is willing to share with you. Also tell them why you are interested - is it purely curiosity or is it because you are concerned about them. Remember, connection involves sensitivity to other people's feelings and a mutual caring for one another.

6. Check your intentions before speaking. Think about your reasons before you engage with the other person. Sometimes all we want is to connect, and sometimes we may have a hidden agenda. Do you just want to vent and get relief without caring whether the other person likes it or not, or do you want a conversation that is equally engaging to both of you? Do you want to educate, correct or fix another person, or do you want to understand and be understood? Do you want to influence their choices and make them do what you want, or do you want to find solutions that work for both of you? Be honest with yourself if you notice a hidden agenda and remember your long-term goals for this relationship. If you want a relationship that is close, caring, and enjoyable, set your intentions with these goals in mind. Remember that your intentions today create your relationship tomorrow and for many years to come.

7. Find an authentic way to say "I love you." Whether "I love you" is an over-used phrase that has lost some of its meaning or a rare artifact of your relationship with the other person, find a way to tell them that you care. All parents want to know that they matter to their children, and all children, whatever their age, want to know that they are loved and accepted just the way they are. A simple gesture of care might speak louder than any words. If you don't know what you can do, look into their eyes and ask "what can I do to show how much you mean to me?" Find the words that feel right to you, but don't wait. Whether you see each other once a week or once a year, for all you know this might be the last holiday season you spend together. Don't lose the precious chance for a deep connection today.

In our busy, technologically-advanced age, the joy of human connection is becoming increasingly rare. Use the holidays to bring back that joy and make it a season to remember.

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