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Family Reunion Fixes

Kalamazoo Gazette, by Phyllis Rose, April 21, 2010

KALAMAZOO — Attending a family reunion can be like negotiating a minefield. Family issues that go back years and years can surface  at any time. But rather than avoiding the annual event, go with a different attitude and new communication skills and you can have the family reunion of your dreams.

At family reunions, people are often worried about how they’re going to impress others, David Cunningham said, communication expert with Landmark Education, based in San Francisco. But that’s the wrong way to approach the event.

“What’s really important is to not try to impress them with what we’ve done, but to let them know we really acknowledge, celebrate and think highly of what they’ve accomplished,” Cunningham said. “If you go there with that intent, then you don’t have to worry at all about impressing people and it takes all of that tension out of that conversation.”

Acknowledging the other person’s accomplishments may be the quickest path to new family relationships.

“It takes about one minute of thanking somebody or some acknowledgment to have love be present, to have an extraordinary relatedness be present,” he said. “Acknowledgment is the fastest path to being instantly related to somebody. Thank them or acknowledge them and you’ll instantly be related to them.”

Communicating effectively at a family reunion also means separating what actually happened in the past from our interpretation of the event, he said.

“Mostly, 99 percent of our experience of something is not given by what happens. It’s given by our interpretation of what happens,” he said.

Events from years ago have all these interpretations added, so you come to the reunion with a story, an interpretation of the person and what others are going to think of you, he said.  To avoid that, separate what actually happened from what you’ve added.

“Remember that the events happened and then what you added didn’t actually happen. It got made up. That gives people a lot of freedom,” he said. “If people want to, they can take out a piece of paper and draw a line down the middle.  On one side of the page, write here’s the event and on the other side of the page here’s what I added.  And they’ll see it very clearly. Once you see the difference between the two, it’s very simple and all of the upset is in the part that got added.”

For example, if your mother-in-law says the sauce you cooked needs salt, that is what happened. What you added is “she doesn’t respect me” or “she’s always meddling.”

“The upset is always in the part that got added, not what got said,” Cunningham said. “When people see that and remember that, it takes all the potential little land mines out of a family reunion.”

If you do this, you can walk into a family reunion with a clean slate and create a new family dynamic.

“With effective communication, you can create the exact relationship you want right now, no matter what the past is,” he said.

You can then communicate with your family members in such a way that they know they aren’t being blamed or judged for anything and that they are being listened to, he said. That will make them more willing to connect and communicate with you.

Forgiveness is an important part of the communication as well, he said.

“People have a funny notion of forgiveness. They think it sounds like this, ‘I forgive you for being such a jerk.’ But that’s not forgiveness,” he said. “That’s just us patting ourselves on the back for being a big enough person to put up with their jerkdom. To forgive, you give your love back like you did before anything happened. You just give yourself back, your love back to them.”

If you go to the reunion with these things in place and still someone says something hurtful, remember you don’t have to respond to everything, Cunningham said.

“Let them go by. Then say what you want to say that creates the relationship you want,” he said.

A rule of thumb is to go with the commitment that you’re going to have more fun than you think you’re going to have, he said.

“We go with a preconceived notion of how much fun it is going to be, but it’s always possible to have more fun than you think you’re going to have.  If you go with that commitment, that makes a big difference,” he said.