The holidays are full of merriment and cheer. Mostly. One thing that can get in the way is the difficulty of spending time with relatives we don’t see very often. Emotions can run high as old wounds resurface and familiar patterns reset.
Communication is the key to every relationship. And this is as true during holiday visits as in any other time. Whether it is in a marriage, with siblings, parents, or children, communication is both the fuel and barometer for relationship.
State of Affairs
We all struggle with communication. Each of us has a unique perspective we are trying to share. We disagree with everyone on one point or another. Relationships are about coexisting with people we disagree with. They are also about thriving through the kind of community that comes when we are willing to listen to one another.
Communication is a team sport. So much of the time, we are trying to destroy one another with our communication. We’re like boxers in the ring. We think it is kill or be killed. But communication takes two (at least). You can’t communicate by bullying your way through just like you can’t communicate by staying silent. If the goal of communication is gaining power and control, we have slipped into fighting for a ME There rather than pursuing the good of all involved, the entire relationship.
The lie we believe is that relationship is competition. It’s like the old Highlander TV show – there can only be one! And so, we fight to have our own voice, our own perspective, heard and validated over and against those we are in relationship with.
The Olive Branch Theory
When my wife and I were preparing ourselves for marriage, a psychiatrist friend of ours told us that the main difference she sees between healthy and unhealthy relationships is the way individuals react when an olive branch is extended.
In the midst of our communication, we are trying to pass our perspective on to others. Simultaneously, we are trying to receive theirs. You can call it relationship health, shared vision, or a happy marriage, but the goal of communication in a relationship is to get to a place of shared truth. Resolution could be a shared conclusion or a shared understanding of the differences, but the goal is to have something external of self be settled – the relationship. When we fight for ME, we lose sight of this and our relationships suffer.
Conflict is inevitable, and necessary, in any relationship. Communication is a tool to discover truth and conflict can help with that endeavor. The Olive Branch Theory our friend brought up was this: If husband and wife are in an argument and one of them (let’s say the wife) offers an “olive branch”, how does the husband respond? There is always a moment like this in every conflict. Indeed, in every communication. Someone will say something like “Ok, I’m sorry for yelling. I see your point.” Or, “Let’s not fight anymore.” Or “I’m just trying to understand you.” These are olive branch statements. It is an invitation to move the communication to the WE realm.
Healthy couples (relationships) take the olive branch and run with it. Unhealthy relationships will push it away and move the conversation back to an us versus them mindset. The olive branch is a reminder that we are on the same team and that communication is about coming to a deeper understanding of the truth within a relationship.
A simple way to communicate better is to be on the lookout for olive branches. Maybe even instigate them. And when they come, take the opportunity. Take the road to shared understanding. Ironically, our desperate attempts to be heard are only arrived at during shared understanding. The more we make an opponent out of our loved ones, the less chance anyone has of winning.
Our relationships needs more olive branches and better responses to them when they are offered. It is enough to completely transform the way we communicate and the way we relate.