Family affair

A Family Affair: How to Navigate the Holidays, Stubborn Parents

I graded a lot of homework this week. As a teacher, grading is one of the things that takes up my most time, partly because I tend to assign assignments, not tests. Tests have right or wrong answers. But not the papers. A good article, in my opinion, tries to convince the reader that an idea or an argument is important. This can be done by logic, by empirical evidence, or by an anecdote or personal experience.

Jacob Priest is a licensed marriage and family therapist and professor at the University of Iowa. He co-hosts the attached podcast. (Jacob Priest)

Over the past few weeks, I’ve also been called by a few newspaper and TV reporters to talk about how to experience the holidays with close family members who have different ideas or opinions. Depending on the journalist’s questions, I will have different answers. But there is one that I will always give — listen carefully.

When it comes to listening to our family members, we sometimes treat them as tests. We can ask a question, but with the intention of hearing what we consider to be the “right” answer. For me, it’s not asking good questions or listening well. When our conversations feel like “true/false” or “multiple-choice” questions, we’re not building relationships.

Instead of treating family members as tests, we should treat conversations as papers. My students’ first drafts are never great. They need time and space to organize their thoughts and put them together in a cohesive way. They need time to sit down with the prompts given to them to write the document to brainstorm their ideas. They need the flexibility to edit, make changes, and rethink their ideas while continuing to write.

When we listen well, that’s what we do. We ask questions with no right or wrong answers. We give space to our loved ones. We allow them to talk about their ideas, change their minds and change what they said. When we listen well, we continue to ask questions to clarify our own understanding and that of our loved one. We don’t rush to judge; we listen to them.

This does not mean that at the end of their answers or their story, we will agree with them. That’s not the point. The goal of listening is not agreement, it is understanding. Understanding allows us to see the whole person more clearly.

So if you find yourself testing your loved ones — or if your loved ones are testing you — that can be a game-changer. Instead of searching or trying to give the right answers, give them space to clarify their ideas. Instead of judging their initial response, allow them to continue talking and give them space to think about what they’re saying.

It won’t remove all the tension or conflict from your vacation, and it will likely take longer. But if we can all do this well, I think we can find greater understanding and more compassion for those we love.

Jacob Priest is a licensed marriage and family therapist and professor at the University of Iowa College of Education. He is also a co-host of the attached podcast. Comments: [email protected]