How to communicate with family and loved ones throughout the holiday season

According to a study by Virginia Tech, effective communication is an important characteristic of strong, healthy families. Press here to listen to a podcast by speech instructor, Kimberly Stankovich, and discover the greatest gift you can give to someone during the holiday season. 

Worrying about a holiday visit is sometimes the state of mind that describes those who are forced to be with extended relatives once a year.

Here is a Q & A to help cope with the relational struggles, utilizing suggested interpersonal communication skills taught by speech instructor Kimberly Stankovich at Saddleback College.

What are some tools that can be used to effectively communicate with others throughout the holidays?

“The skills used to communicate with loved ones should be practiced on a daily basis. However, the people or in-laws that are seen once a year can possibly be tolerated during one turkey meal,” said Stankovich. “It’s a matter of making a choice and realizing that emotions and feelings are stronger during this time.”

“Knowing how to use “assertion” is valuable in communication and is a learned skill that takes some time to get right and one way is to exchange the word “but” for the word “and” in a sentence,”  Stankovich said.

Instead, Stankovich suggests that for instance, one could say, ‘ I want to go to Aunt Hilda’s and I want to study for finals,’ rather than, ‘I want to go to Aunt Hilda’s, but I have finals.’

“It’s [a formulated sentence that] creates equal feelings between two people,” Stankovich said. “My want and your want are on the same plain.”

Also using “I” statements rather than “you” statements can deviate from making the other person feel judged. For example, I feel embarrassed when you call me “chubby” because I want to feel loved by my family and it makes me feel inferior.

“You are in control of how you feel and by using ‘I’ statements you are taking ownership of your own feelings and wants by handling it in an assertive way,” Stankovich said.

“Something to keep in mind, is each person is in control of their own emotions and no one can make someone feel or respond in a certain way because it’s each person’s own choice,” Stankovich said.

What is one way to avoid being hurt or angry when someone tends to give you a “wintery” cold shoulder?

Stankovich feels it’s important not to assume the other person is having issues about you. It helps you to slow down and not jump to conclusions. Suspending judgement is something you should keep in mind and try implementing the skill of “Perspective Checking.”

“There are three basic steps to perspective checking,” Srankovich said. “The first step is to describe the behavior of the action or words said by the other person. The second step is to offer two possible and different interpretations of the behavior and third is to request feedback from the person.”

For example if you text someone and this person doesn’t text back right away, you may start thinking the person is upset or not caring. So instead of allowing your mind to come-up with a thousand reasons of misinformation, try using these steps to get your answer and avoid or reduce unnecessary conflict. Remember your “I” statements in the process.

“I sent you two text messages and I didn’t hear back from you as quickly as I usually do. I’m wondering if I did something to upset you or you are just busy with finals. What’s going on?”

Then wait for the response and remember to accept his or her answer and leave it at that. It helps the relationship to not judge the person and this helps the person process what you want or need. The person may not be ready to give a valid answer at that exact moment, but perhaps later when he or she is ready and is more likely to remember that you are a safe person to go to. This skill is known for its relationship-building qualities.

What is the greatest gift you can give someone this holiday season?

“The greatest gift one can give to someone during the holiday season is just be quiet and listen,” Stankovich said.

This is her most favorite skill because people in general are usually rushed and take over a conversation. Being mindful to just sit and listen to someone can be an act of kindness during the holiday season. If you try this, remember to act interested, point out certain words to keep the person’s trust open and repeat part of their sentence. Continue to remain quiet without adding your input or judgement unless they ask for your advice. Respect their request, even if they start to judge you. Remember you will have your chance at another time. This is a gift to them.

“If you can learn to become a more effective listener, I think it’s the one skill that will get you through life,” Stankovich said. “If you have a strained relationship and there is one thing you can change, it would be to listen and everything will start to fall into place.”

If you can say to the person “How was your day?” And the person says “tough” then instead of interjecting and telling them about your day, stop and reply with “tough?” and simply be quiet and listen. And if they criticize you then just say “What else?” Humans like to vent and it may have nothing to do with you,  although sometimes they may take it out on you, but continue to say “what else?” This is the best gift you can give to someone you care about.

What if I try these tools, but I can’t seem to get past the hurt? 

Keep in mind that these are skills that are taught out of a textbook for those taking class, Speech 5. These skills take practice and the intentions are meant to be helpful.

“There are some folks out there that probably need professional help or medication and that’s OK,” Stankovich said. “There are some concerns and life issues that go way beyond the scope of an introductory human level communications course and we are just scratching the surface.”