I dread family gatherings. Especially this year. In a few days, many of us will be spending time with families, and many of our families are politically divided.
If you are anything like me, you may be wishing you had more choices than the disconnecting fight, flee & freeze scripts you’ve likely been using all your life.
Growing up, I was trained in polite behavior at diplomatic functions: greeting people at the door, offering appetizers, knowing which silverware to use.
However, the art of diplomacy often involves deftly masking your truth.
I’d be polite and nice to the rich and powerful man who would hold my hand for just too long after he’d been drinking all night, would force myself to smile and shake hands while my stomach would turn.
I learned to tell people their food was lovely, when my throat was gagging.
I was trained in this particular form of self-violence: override your own feelings, your own desires, your own reality in the name of “good manners.” Disown your truth, mask yourself into your surroundings, fit in, don’t make trouble, don’t rock the boat.
The world is splitting and dividing both around us and within us.
Meaningful personal and social change begins by learning how to communicate our inner truths, the impact that others are having on us in a way that invites us to join one another, instead of continuing to attack or defend against each other.
It starts with our deep intention to connect with the people we love, while standing for what we want to see more of in the world.
We refuse to make enemies out of anyone.
We drop our defenses.
We open our hearts.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu reminds us that “When we see others as the enemy, we risk becoming what we hate. When we oppress others, we end up oppressing ourselves. All of our humanity is dependent upon recognizing the humanity of others.”
So, when I catch myself falling into old traps of self-silencing, avoiding and disengaging, or on the other hand, raging and judging others, I now instead….
Take a deep breath, find some gentle and kind energy to send to myself and switch course.
Find ways of gently speaking from my pain, grief, fear and despairinstead of resisting them. I connect my feelings to my deeply important desires for more freedom, choice, safety, inclusivity for all people.
Actively invite others to join me in finding new creative ways of making things better, together, and do whatever I can to get us sitting on the same side of the metaphorical couch. Together.
I work on embodying and modeling what I want more of in the world: curiosity, compassion, truth-telling, kindness.
I believe that transformation is possible when we follow the principles of living systems that Joanna Macy so beautifully describes:
“Living systems evolve in variety, resilience and intelligence; they do this not by erecting walls of defense and closing off from their environment, but by opening more widely to currents of matter, energy and information. Through constant interaction, they spin more intricate connections and more flexible strategies. They can’t do this if they are invulnerable, but only if they are open and responsive.” (P. 56, Coming Back to Life by Joanna Macy)
So, as we each have family gatherings and meals this holiday season, let’s practice speaking and listening from our hearts:
Marshall Rosenberg used to quip, “Never hear what anybody thinks; you’ll live longer.” Instead of debating ideologies, he suggested that we listen for the deeper values underneath the tragic strategies others currently support, and reflect only those values back to them.
Listen for feelings and needs. Regardless of what someone is saying, put your attention on their tone of voice and body language, and reflect back to them their passion, their intensity, their conviction.
It’s a great way to practice listening for what is “alive” and deeply important, instead of getting hijacked by the content. (And, a side benefit is this often results in them being seen and heard in a way that may feel soothing and new. Win-win.)
Sentence starters and phrases you might find useful, if you want to disengage in a new way …
“I find this subject really painful to talk about; I want to spend today really connecting with you and caring for our relationship, and I worry that this conversation will get divisive and hurtful … I wonder if you’d be willing to find something else for us to explore together?”
“When I hear you say (xyz), I notice myself getting activated and stressed out. I am not sure that I have the capacity or resourcefulness today to have this conversation without it getting heated and hurtful. Since I really care about you and our relationship, could we find something else to talk about?
“I feel very strongly about the importance of (freedom, choice, equality, kindness, inclusion, safety – whatever need is up for you) and it’s currently blocking my ability to hear you or let your perspective in. Can we table this for another time when I might be able to listen more wholeheartedly?”
If nothing else, just practice gratitude. Joanna Macy says that “gratitude puts ground under your feet.”
Practicing gratitude helps us to be more fully present to ourselves and others, to trust in the resources already available to us on a daily basis, and to actively attend to what is good and working in the world.
Don’t confuse gratitude with positive evaluations. There is a big difference between saying “You are great” or “Thanks for being a good mom,” and real gratitude:
The most powerful expressions of gratitude I’ve received, combine 2 key elements:
A clear observation of what I either did or said
Followed by details about the positive impact this had on the other person.
Just a few days ago, my daughter shared this with me: “Mom, I love it when you get up in the mornings and walk the dog together with me. I feel like we have more time to talk, we get to enjoy nature together, we get to talk about important things, and I just feel like you like being with me which feels so good. I’m so glad we do this together every day.”
That. Made. My. Day.
Gratitude. Try it.