Executive coaching, skills development, training and consulting in high stakes communication

Ahh, the holidays. Reminds me a little of African watering holes I have visited over the years where herds of animals who normally might eat or chase each other, gather peacefully for a life-giving drink.  Most of the time.

At a recent gathering I noticed my friend was troubled by her relationship with her mother-in-law, who really intimidates her, particularly at family gatherings.    The more intimidated my friend feels, the worse it seemed to get. She has a tendency to compensate by becoming nicer, more agreeable, more accommodating, more clever.  I like to call this ‘getting even more amazing’.

For example, her mother-in-law would quietly disapprove of many things my friend did during the gathering.  My friend would over-respond.  Bigger gestures, bigger smiles, bigger apologies, bigger niceness.  All while she was seething inside.

This is a pretty common response.  The irony is that what she is doing in attempt to make things better is the very opposite of what she needs to do.

Does this happen to you or someone you know?

Here are a couple of options: ignore it or call it.  Both are kind of a tactical confrontation.  Both happen the moment a jibe occurs.  Regardless of which option you go for, remember that when someone disapproves of your behavior like this, they thrive on your pain.  You need to understand that the jibes are not about you – they are the other person’s problem. To take them personally or to take responsibility for them turn them into your problem and it can make things worse.  Ignoring the jibes means you won’t give them the oxygen to survive. (always easier said than done of course)

If you decide to call it – you acknowledge it and seek to understand it.  My friend’s mother-in-law often delivered her jibes and disapprovals quietly to her so no one else could hear.  It is important for my friend to respond in the same way – quietly and directly.   The mother-in-law’s most common disapprovals were stated as:

‘I don’t think that is appropriate for the children’

‘We don’t do it like that in our family’

‘You clearly don’t know how to do it properly’

Here are some suggested responses (delivered with full eye contact of course, with a calm and interested tone)

‘Why do you feel that way?’

‘What would you prefer?’

‘Where did you get that information?’

Gatherings at the watering hole are rarely easy (or safe).  I encourage you to find a trusted friend and rehearse your plan.  Be brave.  Make small changes step by step –  it starts with sticking up for yourself.

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