SALT LAKE CITY — In this edition of LIFEadvice, Coach Kim answer’s a reader’s question about how to deal with COVID-19 related disagreements in the family by teaching a technique that can be used to solve all types of disagreements.
This one is a tough one for me. We have 6 kids (plus several spouses/boyfriends/girlfriends) in our family that we adore. They all live nearby and we love having them come visit for family holidays. I’m in a pickle here, though, and need your advice. I’m an avid news and science follower and have followed the COVID pandemic closely. Unfortunately, my sister even passed from COVID last month so I am really concerned about it. The problem is that my husband says he has had enough of this pandemic and the isolation and has invited all the family to come for Thanksgiving. We’ve had lengthy conversations about it and he knows I think that we should visit remotely as instructed by our leaders. What do I do given that we disagree so strongly about this? I know I am sensitive because of my sister’s passing, but I worry about the health and safety of ALL our loved ones. Shouldn’t we be setting a good example for our family and following guidelines?
The short answer is yes, of course, you should absolutely follow the guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention when you celebrate Thanksgiving, which include hosting a remote gathering or wearing masks and practicing physical distancing, among other things. Having said that, I think your real question is: “How do I convince my spouse to follow the COVID-19 guidelines, and how do I handle the disagreement?”
The answer to that question is simple because it’s the same answer no matter what the disagreement is about. You need to have a mutually validating conversation with them, where you both feel heard, understood and valued, and you need to come up with a compromise that honors both your feelings.
I believe knowing how to have mutually validating conversations is one of the most important relationship skills we need to have because it means you can talk about anything and not digress into a fight.
Here are some steps for how to do that:
1. Let go of your need to be right
If your goal is to convince him he is wrong and win the argument, he is likely just going to get defensive. A mutually validating conversation is not about being right and getting your way; it’s about making both parties feel heard and understood, actually understanding the other person and their feelings, and honoring and respecting their right to feel the way they do. This requires you to be generous and caring as you go into this.
2. Make sure you see the other person as the same as you
This means you don’t see yourself as smarter, wiser, more educated, more morally right, or above the other person in any way. You remind yourself that you have faults, too, and you both have the same intrinsic value all the time — that cannot change. This prevents you from talking down to the other person, which will always offend them. It also should prevent you from feeling intimidated or less than another person.
3. Set your agenda and feelings aside upfront
This means you are going to start this conversation with only one goal in mind: to ask questions, listen, understand and make sure the other person feels fully heard, honored and respected for their right to think the way they do. This conversation must start all about them, and not at all about you and your views. I sometimes need to set my feelings, opinions and agenda in another room and shut the door before going into a conversation like this. You must dedicate yourself upfront to just caring about how the other person feels.
4. Ask the other person questions about their thoughts and feelings
Ask your husband if he would be willing to talk to you about Thanksgiving and help you understand how he feels about it. During this step, you will ask great questions that show your desire to understand and give the him space to share all the details about his views. You want to spend as much time here as possible because this is the step that makes the other person feel safe with you, heard and valued. Make sure you don’t agree or disagree with anything your husband says. This is not about you yet. This part is just about listening and caring about how he feels.
- Ask him to share how fed up with COVID-19 and quarantining he is.
- Ask him to share how being away from his loved ones makes him feel.
- Ask him what the hardest part of following COVID-19 restrictions has been.
- Ask him if he would share why he isn’t more scared about getting COVID-19 (make sure this doesn’t sound like an attack, but that you really want to understand how he sees things).
- Ask him to help you understand what he fears he would be losing if he can’t have the family over for Thanksgiving. What bothers him about that?
- Ask him: “Tell me more about that and what makes you feel that way?”
- Say things like “I can understand why you would feel this way.”
5. Ask permission to share your thoughts
After you have spent a lot of time listening, and you can tell your husband feels heard and understood, you may ask him if he would be willing to let you share how you feel about it. You might want to ask a couple of permission questions so you can create the safe space you need. This might sound like:
- Do you know that I care and respect how you feel?
- I know that you already feel that you know my views, but would you be willing to take a few minutes and let me share my thoughts and feelings about Thanksgiving with you?
- Would you be willing to give me 5 minutes to fully explain where I am coming from before you respond? Would you do that for me?
If he agrees — which he should if he feels like he’s already been validated and listened to — you can move ahead. But, if he is not in a place where he can do that right now, you must respect that. You must give him an out and let him know it’s OK to say no. You do this because you are building a relationship of trust and security with him, and most of all you want him to feel respected. This benefits you because if he feels respected and safe with you, then he is going to be more willing to listen to you in the future.
6. Speak your truth without attacking the other person
You will do this by following two rules:
- Use more “I” statements than “you” statements
- Focus on the future, not the past.
When you use “I” statements, you are explaining why you think and feel the way you do. Speak to your observations, opinions, views and perspective. Don’t say things like, “You don’t take this seriously.” Instead say, “I really feel like this is something I need to take seriously. I have had someone close to me die and that makes the threat of COVID-19 feel really scary to me.”
Avoid bringing up any behavior from the past by saying things like, “I feel like you never care what I think, remember last Christmas?” Instead say, “Would you be willing to care about what I think about this, this year?”
Make sure you don’t insist on making the other person be wrong; you just have different perspectives, and both deserve to be honored.
7. Find ways to compromise
Obviously, though, only one plan for Thanksgiving can happen. Some kind of compromise must be reached. You might ask if there is anything you could do to make your husband feel like the family is there with you while gathering for the meal remotely.
- Could you organize some games you could all play by video conference?
- Could you put a computer or device at the table with each family streaming live so you can all feel more together?
- What else could you do to counter the loss he will feel? Could you do something special for him that would make up for the loss?
Work to show your husband that you are not out to make him wrong, forcing your way, or trying to win; you just want to find a way to make him happy and keep everyone safe. You may have to repeat steps 4-6 a few times until you reach an agreement.
You can do this.
Ask Coach Kim
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