01/18/2012 07:40 pm ET Updated Mar 19, 2012

Holding Your Own in Difficult Family Relationships

Matt [not his real name] was trembling with rage. Once again, his father had humiliated him in front of the entire staff. Matt had proposed a carefully thought-out recommendation for a new project, and his father had dismissed his suggestion without giving him the opportunity to fully explain his ideas.

Matt had joined the family business eight years ago right after graduating college. He knew going in that his father could be overbearing and liked to be in control, but he never envisioned he would feel so unhappy and demeaned.

The problem was that Matt had trouble speaking up in a way that proved to be effective. He would either explode unreasonably, openly sulk or stew in silence. What he had previously considered to be a fairly good relationship with his father had now deteriorated to a superficial, often sarcastic, interaction. There were times he became so frustrated he had considered quitting but had always stopped himself because he knew it would be foolhardy when he had a family to support. Something had to change.

Matt's struggle is not an uncommon one in families, whether family members work with each other or just face the day to day challenges that come up. Finding the "voice" to speak calmly and clearly to another person at difficult times is a challenge that does not come easily for most people. Invariably, when we are uncomfortable or in disagreement, we react in predictable ways, often "pushing each other's buttons" and losing the ability to come to reasonable resolutions. We may say nothing, but let our disgruntlement show in other ways. We may avoid the other person and totally hold our feelings in. We may let them know indirectly that we're upset, by our tone of voice or hurt demeanor. Or we may explode so inappropriately that those around us dismiss us as irrational and don't take us seriously.

So how do we break a pattern that causes distress and frustration and develop a style of relating that communicates what is truly important to us and has the best chance of getting through to the other person?

First, we must step away from the stressful situation and give ourselves the opportunity to truly reflect on what is going on. If we are so focused on blaming the other person for all the heartache they are causing us, we lose an important opportunity to fairly assess the situation. It's important for all of us to remember that when we accuse or blame another person they invariably become defensive and tune us out or attack back. That's the surest way for a conversation to deteriorate to an ugly confrontation.

If we are able to sincerely state what's important to us and how we are feeling, taking responsibility for our own part of the disagreement, we have our best shot at making an impact. Learning how to "speak up" often takes some effort and may not feel comfortable at first. Importantly, we may also conclude that the situation is hopeless and there is nothing we can do to make things better.

In Matt's case, if he wasn't so angry at his father he might have been able to see the proposal from all angles, and even consider the possibility that his father's position had some merit.

Giving himself the chance to calm down and consider all his options might enable Matt to find "the voice" to speak up directly to his father. After one particularly distressing blowup, Matt took the plunge and decided to approach his father differently. He asked to speak to his father privately, making sure it was a time neither of them would be distracted by outside pressures:

Dad, I'm very unhappy about the way you and I have been handling a lot of the situations that come up at work. Our relationship is important to me and I don't want to undermine things in any way. I'm very proud of our company and would like to make important contributions. I know that I may have a lot to learn, and some of my ideas might not always be realistic, but it would mean a lot to me if you would seriously consider what I have to say, and give me your feedback, pro or con. I know I can get hot headed, but I will work on listening more carefully to your opinions as well. I would appreciate if you would consider my feelings when you speak to me. I think it would also be important that we both consider what we say to each other when the other employees are in earshot.

There will be those who think that Matt's statement sounded contrived and unrealistic. Obviously, each person must modify his message to one that feels sincere. What's important to note is that Matt started his conversation positively. He clearly stated that his goal was to maintain a good relationship with his father. He spoke with humility, although not by putting himself down. He expressed a willingness to hear feedback, and a wish to be collaborative.

Now, just because Matt was taking steps to handle his angst in a new way (that made sense to him) did not guarantee his father would respond the way Matt wanted. His father was much more accustomed to complaints or sarcasm and was taken aback when spoken to so directly. And obviously, one conversation will not undo months and years of a contentious interaction. Sometimes family members are accustomed to the way things have always been and are resistant to the changes. Matt discovered that he had to be realistic and patient, if he and his father were to make inroads in their relationship.

As Matt began to speak up more assertively about his ideas, he discovered that others in the office were taking notice and were relating in a more positive, respectful way. Matt also learned some important things about himself: When a person feels more in control of negative emotions, they often have a greater sense of clarity and confidence.

For more by Linda Lipshutz, M.S., LCSW, click here.

For more on relationships, click here.

Linda Lipshutz, M.S., LCSW is a psychotherapist serving individuals, couples and families. A Palm Beach Gardens resident, she holds degrees from Cornell and Columbia and trained at the Ackerman Institute for Family Therapy in Manhattan. She can be reached in her Gardens office at 561 630 2827, or online at