Relatives at Christmas: How to handle them without 'losing' it (part 1)
If you are dreading the festive season because you're anticipating rows and melt-downs, there are a few techniques you can learn, to help defuse situations and head them off before they erupt. The first one to know about is assertive I-statements.
These are messages you give when you need someone else’s behaviour to change, as it is causing you a problem. They are called I-messages because they are heavy with the word ‘I’ and sparing on the word ‘you’. Here’s how to build one up:
- Describe the behaviour that’s an issue, in a neutral, factual way without any blaming, e.g. ‘when I see all the dirty plates left in the lounge’. This can be quite hard to do. It’s only natural to want to judge and blame the person, to start with ‘you always...’, but it immediately gets the other person on the defensive, and wanting to strike back with their own blaming comment. Keeping it neutral lessens their aggressive reaction.
- State the practical effect on you, e.g. ‘I have lots of extra work to do before our visitors arrive’. It has to be an actual, practical effect, like costing you money, making you late for work or using up time you had planned to use for something else.
- Say the feeling this gives you, e.g. ‘I feel worried that the house won’t be ready in time and I’ll be embarrassed.’ Clearly naming the emotion is useful. ‘Angry’ is actually rather multi-purpose, so try to pin it down to the precise feeling, maybe ‘afraid’, ‘exhausted’ or ‘ashamed’.
Obviously this is not going to work like a magic wand, but it is a way to get your relative to understand what’s really bugging you on this occasion, and exactly why. Hopefully this means they are a little more likely to change their behaviour!
Another idea to try is a positive I-statement. You pick a moment when there is no problem behaviour happening (yes, there probably will be occasional moments like this!) and you give an I-message but with positive things in it, e.g. ‘When I see all the children playing together and sharing their toys, I can relax and read my magazine, and I feel really happy.’ It may sound cheesy and unnatural to you, but it reinforces helpful behaviour and gives your relatives a warm feeling towards you.
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