Relatives at Christmas: how to handle them without 'losing' it (part 2)
When families get together at Christmas, people sometimes find themselves slipping back into ingrained habits in relating to each other. You might realise you are reacting like a stroppy teenager when you are old enough to know better, or treating your adult children as if they are little kids. Knowing some strategies you can choose to use may help you to avoid defaulting to old behaviour patterns.
One seriously useful strategy is called 'Active Listening'. The time to use this one is when someone else is starting to get upset. By 'upset', I mean any kind of negative emotion, e.g. irritated, sad, angry, sulky, over-tired, embarrassed, frightened. We all have typical, default ways of reacting to someone else's distress, and this technique will only work if we are willing to have a go at overriding our usual responses. So, if you usually go into 'Don't you worry - I'll make it all OK' or 'Man up and stop whingeing' or 'I can't handle this, I'll leave the room till it stops', then Active Listening will feel a bit strange at first.
So how does it work? The idea is to name the emotion the other person is feeling, e.g. 'You look really fed up', or 'Has this been disappointing for you?'. Make sure you check this out with the other person, i.e. be a bit tentative. Don't assume you automatically know what their feeling is. It can be tricky to accept that your relative is experiencing a difficult feeling which is not necessarily the same thing you are feeling, and which is not necessarily what you would be feeling in the same circumstances. But some empathy is needed here, and this means trying to see things from their point of view.
How does Active Listening help? It can defuse emotions that are escalating by making the other person feel heard and understood. This means their rational brain has more chance to gain control over their behaviour. It also helps YOU to stay out of a defensive mode of relating, so you can keep control of your own emotions. Harmony has more chance to break out, and everyone has more chance to engage with each other from a more mature viewpoint.
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