a guide for talking to family

…and an important exercise in understanding how our personal values and beliefs shape our decisions and interactions.

Over the holidays, we are often surrounded by family – people whose values and beliefs may have shaped our lives at some point, but whose beliefs now differ from our own. Maybe they are unwavering in their beliefs – or maybe you are. Either way, the disconnect – the tension – becomes palpable when you hear points of view that you would classify as ignorant and narrow-minded.

Both sides could benefit from listening to the other perspective, but one of the reasons this tension builds around family is you! Most of us hold the things we value and believe strongly, but have never taken the time to discover why we hold those beliefs and what values we have that shape them.

Start with a simple exercise of reflection — creating a practice of understanding yourself in those moments of frustration and passion. Ask yourself:

  • When am I frustrated with the people I love?
  • What topics – when they come up in conversation – make me angry / upset?
  • What topics do I try to change friends/families minds about?

In that moment – holding the frustration and asking yourself “why” will help you better understand, define, and then communicate what you value and believe.

Some personal examples:

I am frustrated when people engage with others in a way that I interpret as selfish, whether through direct action or inaction. An example could be not chipping in on shared tasks over the holidays (i.e. dishes or cooking) or expecting to be served. Why does this bother me? It’s not fair is what first comes to mind. Why is it not fair? A few people end up doing a huge portion of the “collective” responsibilities. Why does that matter to me? Everyone should think enough about others to consider how their actions (or lack thereof) impact those around them.

With some introspection, I come to a core personal belief of empathy. I believe everyone should seek to understand the feelings and needs of their fellow humans – especially those they love! From that belief, I can start to articulate how I want to operate through that belief (my values). From empathy, I come to a core personal value of being generous with my time, money, and energy. 

This belief – and core value – can help define my actions. I can decide from that generosity to do more dishes and to serve others. I can also choose to be thankful for those that are serving. Knowing how I respond to this behavior, I can be more clear upfront about what I care about and work to set expectations and structures that support this belief (vs. just expecting everyone to see the world in the way that I do!). Finally, perhaps with the most difficulty, my personal belief of empathy should carry to trying to understand and have grace for those individuals that I interpret of not doing their “fair share” of tasks.

Another example of this process, is a topic – 2nd Amendment Rights – that I find myself getting angry about. Why do I get so angry about this subject? There is an incredible amount of misinformation, misinterpretation, and ignorance on the amendment itself. It was directed to protect a “well regulated militia” to preserve states autonomy amidst a Constitution that gave far reaching power over the military to the federal government, and was not intended as a far-reaching personal protection for gun control. Why does this misinformation and ignorance bother me? I believe that the impact of inaction on any form of reasonable gun control has a clear correlation to the number of gun related homicides in the U.S.: at a rate 4-15x larger than the rest of the developed worldI didn’t feel this strongly 5 years ago, why do I today? Becoming a husband and parent has made me more conscious of my family’s safety and the data shows that school shootings in particular have been increasing over the past ten years. I find myself worrying about Lucy going to school, because of what has happened at schools all across our country. School no longer feels like a “safe place”. One interesting story that helped me grasp the level of “un-safeness” in America because of our lax gun laws happened when we traveled to Morocco – a country most people in the U.S. would consider as unsafe. We were picked up by a taxi driver who had recently moved his family from Michigan to Marrakesh, Morocco, citing the amount of gun violence in America, and the (lack of) safety for his children as the reason for the move. The U.S. Department of State currently rates Morocco as a “Level 2: Exercise Increased Caution” for travel, yet this man we met, felt safer in Morocco than America. I can’t say I disagree.

Introspection leads me to a core personal belief of the value of every human life as more important than an individual’s right to own anything, and a belief that there should be some control over decisions that have the potential to impact others in an extremely negative way. This belief connects to belief of empathy (and frustration with selfish behavior). Understanding my own perspective on the topic can help me guide conversation back to the values that shape my reasoning – the value of life and reflection on regulation of objects that have extreme negative impacts. It also helps (again) to shape my actions; I can (and do) donate to groups like Moms Demand Action, and vote for candidates that support these beliefs.

The exercise in understanding oneself helps you engage in better, less frustrating dialogue with those around you. It also move you to a space of consciousness for your triggers and choose how you respond to those triggers – making a happier and more successful holiday season 🙂


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