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IntroductionI remember the time I counseled my first family. I had counseled individuals and couples before, and I thought I had learned a thing or two. I was feeling pretty confident. How much harder could it be to counsel a family than to counsel a fighting couple, a mute teenager, or a depressed adult?
Plenty.In walked five people: mom, dad, and their three children. The youngest was a boy of six with the energy of a power station. Then came a boy of nine whose primary goal in life looked to be finding reasons to whack his brother. Then came the sister, all fifteen years of her, as ironic and distant as a human being could be. Last came mom and dad, who appeared to hate each other, if hate wasn't too mild a word.
They clearly didn't want to be there. Did I?
In my training as a psychotherapist, I was taught things, but nothing had prepared me for this. The session went as one might have expected it to go — scores of charges leveled, mom and dad venting, the kids cringing or making themselves absent, feelings getting hurt on all sides, and me wishing I were on a desert island, far away from people.
At the end of yet another assault — maybe mom had leveled a charge at dad, or vice versa, I cannot remember which — I finally blurted: "What is needed here is a little more generosity of spirit!" This little outburst had the strangest effect. The family fell silent and everybody visibly softened. I perked up. Well! It looked like talking about things like love, kindness, and generosity, and not "problems," might be the route to family change. Here was something to think about!
For the past fifteen years I have counseled individuals, couples, and families. I now know that what I intuited in that first family session is the absolute truth. Family communication is possible, but love must be the lubricant. Until a person becomes a more feeling creature — which means feeling pain, anger, hurt, and disappointment sometimes, but also love, kindness, friendship, and generosity — a brick wall blocks genuine communication. So here is a bonus tip: feel. If you open up your heart, pain may spill out — but so will love. It is then that communicating will begin.
It would be great if people were effective, willing communicators. But most people aren't. The ability to communicate takes learning, practice, courage, patience, and a lot more. We have to be able to tolerate frustration, lower our defenses, recognize what we want to say, and then deliver our message in a clear, kind way. How many of us can do that well? Not very many. The problems that families have in communicating are exactly the same problems that people have in communicating, whether they are at work or at home, in Tokyo or in Topeka, and whether they're twelve, thirty —five, or sixty.
Troubleshoot Family Fears
Many people fear flying, spiders, public speaking, intruders, losing their job, contracting diseases, driving at night, even going shopping or just going out. When these fears are severe, we call them phobias. Millions of people suffer from phobias and other anxiety disorders, and everyone is anxious or afraid some of the time. When people are afraid, they find it nearly impossible to communicate.
What rarely helps is to say to someone who is anxious or afraid "Don't worry" or "There is nothing to fear." Here are some communication tips that do work:
"Is there anything I can do to help?"
"I know it feels really scary to do __________,
but I wonder if it would be possible to do _______________ at least?"
"Would it help if we talked about it?"
"Do you know what scares me? _________. Here's what I've learned to do that helps a little."
Many difficult family situations occur because someone is afraid of something and doesn't want to communicate that fact to anyone else. Jennifer, for all her bravado, may actually be afraid of getting behind the wheel for the first time. Johnny may be afraid that his grades have fallen just enough that he's ruined his chances of getting into his first choice college. Mom may be afraid that her job is really too taxing and is harming her health and even more frightened about thinking about a job search or a career change. Dad may be afraid that his failure to plan for retirement means that he'll have to keep working forever. These fears affect family life tremendously, and yet they are among the hardest things for people — even those who love each other dearly — to talk about.
Talking about them helps. Airing your fears is always a winning idea.
When you're afraid, say so.
That's real courage...