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Happy Holidays? Dealing with Difficult Family Relationships: The 3rd Alternative

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A source of real joy at the holidays can also be a source of real stress -- your family.

More than 17 million people Googled "Christmas stress" in December a year ago. Emotions can run high during the holidays as you deal with family expectations and long-term relationship issues.

It might be the first time you've seen your sister since that argument you had last summer. You might get together once a year with your frosty in-laws. You'll be in the same room with a brother you've never quite gotten along with. One acquaintance calls the Christmas Eve dinner at his parents' home "the fight before Christmas."

If you dread these encounters, try giving your family members a different kind of gift this year -- a Talking Stick.

Among Native Americans, the Talking Stick is an ancient tradition. As long as a person holds the stick, no one may interrupt until the speaker feels heard and understood. Others must remain silent.

The Talking Stick is not about winning arguments or settling old conflicts but about hearing the story and understanding the heart of a person. The greatest gift you can give another is the gift of understanding.

Have you ever had the experience of being understood -- to have another person truly, deeply feel what you feel and empathize with you?

The great psychologist Carl Rogers said, "Almost always, when a person feels he has been deeply heard, his eyes moisten. I think in some real sense, he is weeping for joy. It is as though he were saying, 'Thank God, somebody heard me. Someone knows what it's like to be me.'"

This holiday, look for a chance to take your relative aside and give that person a chance to just talk to you. Whether you use an actual Talking Stick or not, follow these simple guidelines.

Just listen. In a conflict situation, we're usually thinking about our own rebuttals and responses while the other person talks. As a result, we really can't hear each other. The inner voice drowns out the other person. If your goal is to build a relationship, not to win an argument, you can relax and just listen to the other person's story.

Don't defend yourself. If you hear things that upset you, resist the urge to fight back. Your goal is to understand the other person's story, not to justify your own story. A family is not a competition, and nobody has to "win." A family is not about scoring points on each other.

Make sure the other person feels understood. If you're not interrupting or sending negative nonverbal signals, gradually the other person will begin to relax with you. He or she might vent for a while, but eventually a listening ear wins a heart. You really don't have to say much -- simple listening goes a long way toward transforming a broken relationship.

Go for a 3rd Alternative. If there's an issue between you, don't insist on getting your way. That doesn't mean, however, you have to give in to the other person's way. Together, you can come up with a 3rd way, a higher and better way.

A man had given his brother $20,000 to start a new business, but the brother quickly ran through the money and asked for more. When the man balked, the business failed, and the two brothers fell out and didn't speak for a number of years.

Finally, the man decided to extend a "Talking Stick" to his brother, and one evening at the fireside, the brother began to open up. He expressed his frustration at being "cut off" of funds just when the business was about to get off the ground. He had felt abandoned and blamed his brother for the failure. There was a lot of pent-up, ragged resentment.

Fortunately, the man just listened to this without responding -- which he easily could have justified doing. Instead, he began to understand just how deeply hurt his brother was by this rift, by the sense of being cut loose without a lifeline.

So instead of fighting back, the man asked, "What if we could go on to a 3rd Alternative, a better way of solving this problem than we've thought of before?" Because he felt understood, the brother was willing. Both felt there was still promise in the business idea, so they brainstormed ways to make it work. Soon, they found a third party who was willing to invest, and eventually the business grew.

As you can read in my new book The 3rd Alternative: Solving Life's Most Difficult Problems, there's almost always a 3rd Alternative to any conflict. Going for the 3rd Alternative drains most of the negative energy out of a conflict because we're no longer interested in fighting. We're interested in going on to something better, higher, and richer.
Most important, we're building a better relationship with our loved ones -- and in the end, isn't that the whole point of the holiday season?

Try giving away a Talking Stick this year.