When holiday season rolls around, we all want to be able to sit around the dinner table and experience something reminiscent of a Norman Rockwell painting. Unfortunately, the holidays tend to bring out the worst in some families. Dr. Travis Bradberry, co-author of the bestselling Emotional Intelligence 2.0, shares some insight on how to repair relationships between family members by focusing on the manner in which conflict is handled.
SN: Can you explain the idea of “repair” and how it can be possible to show respect for someone who is not extending you the same courtesy?
Dr. Bradberry: Repair is the single greatest technique that defines the quality of relationships in terms of how they deal with conflict. It’s about working with the other person to resolve the situation, rather than trying to win. People tend to try to win the battle but lose the war because they get mired in trying to prove their point and arguing their side of things. In reality the war that’s lost is the quality of the relationship as a whole. Repair is about trying to resolve things and move forward together.
SN: In a recent article you wrote titled “How to Repair a Damaged Relationship,” you talk about taking your emotions out of the driver’s seat. For most of us, that is a very difficult thing to do.
Dr. Bradberry: In a situation where emotions are running high, you really have to try to find the frame of mind that looks at the big picture. The conflict or situation itself can be emotionally arousing. It really helps to think about what this is going to look like a week from now, as opposed to what it looks like right now. Once you can look at the big picture, it tends to calm you down a bit.
SN: Do you have any advice for families trying to avoid having the same fight year after year?
Dr. Bradberry: The only way to prevent the same issue from causing problems in the future is to go about it differently. If there is an issue that has come up over and over again, whatever you tend to do year-to-year, you would make a repair instead. It’s about trying to focus on some kind of common good that you have together. You might say, “I don’t have anything to say about that. I’m just glad we’re here together for the holidays.” Repair is about trying to resolve the situation. If you have a sibling that belittles you, you’re probably not going to resolve that by telling them you don’t like that they belittle you. You’re trying to look for a way to find some common ground.
SN: The holidays can be a difficult time for families who have children with special needs if extended family members are not supportive. Some children with autism might be considered “disruptive” by the way that they communicate, which can cause problems for people who do not make an effort to understand the situation. How is it possible to calmly address the situation when it feels like someone is attacking your child?
Dr. Bradberry: If you have a child with some kind of sound sensitivity or who is very emotionally reactive, maybe every year at Christmas there’s some kind of explosive reaction by a member of the family who doesn’t tolerate that well. The way you would make a repair right there is to remind that person that you’re trying to be together for the holidays. “I can’t control ‘David.’ This is how he is. The important thing is we’re just bringing everyone together.” It’s a statement that in the moment doesn’t sound very profound or seem like it’s going to fix everything, but rather than escalating the situation, it has the opposite effect. That’s the important thing because big disagreements usually start very small. They escalate and unravel, and they get very confusing by the time you’re done. So the idea here is to smooth things out before it gets to that point.
SN: Is it a good idea to prepare ahead of time when going into a situation you know might lead to conflict?
Dr. Bradberry: Part of having a child with special needs is extra preparation is absolutely essential. You can’t sort of stroll through life the same way everyone else can. Being that the holidays are particularly stressful, having a game plan and anticipating what you’re probably going to encounter is absolutely a great idea. Also what you can do is consider what kinds of sources of conflict there might be over the holiday and how [people] might respond differently than they have in the past to help keep things on the even keel and prevent conflict from escalating.
The emotional intelligence element of this is self-awareness. That’s the big thing. It’s understanding when your emotions are getting the better of you and basically hijacking your behavior. Through your emotions you can spot that and take a different route, whereas if you aren’t aware of your emotions and you aren’t really honest about how they’re taking control about your behavior, you really can’t expect to respond in an effective manner. For me, in working with families, I’ve always had the advantage of being an outsider to the family. Beyond my training I was never as emotionally invested in situations as the family was. So it gave me perspective that they didn’t have. You can give yourself that same perspective going into a situation by doing some planning and thinking about things ahead of time because you’ll carry that perspective with you. It’s sort of like you have your own little coach there on your shoulder who is reminding you of your game plan. Whereas if you just go through the motions every day, you can’t always expect to catch yourself when you’re emotions are taking control.
SN: So it’s a good idea to be aware of your personal hot button issues and who in your family might try to push them?
Dr. Bradberry: It’s critical to be aware of your personal hot button issues. And being aware to such a degree that when that button gets pushed you can decide whether you need to remove yourself from the situation if you know you’re not going to control yourself. Whether or not there are certain hot button issues, if you’re aware of them you can keep yourself in check. A big thing is that people think they need to control their emotions all the time, and the reality is there are situations in life that just hijack our emotions.
SN: Is there any hope for repairing a relationship that has been damaged for many years?
Dr. Bradberry: Repairing a relationship that’s been a problem for a number of years has to be done differently. Bringing some emotional intelligence to the situation can really help. You only can control yourself, your half of the situation. The important thing is to look at your side of things from a long-term perspective: maybe I’m only going to make a little bit of progress this year, but at least I’m not going to participate [in arguing]. This is what Emotional Intelligence 2.0 is about, and something people can do to increase self-awareness is take the online test accessed with the book to give you your emotional intelligence score. It highlights what your need areas are and which of the book’s strategies can help you increase your emotional intelligence the most to give you some perspective you don’t already have. It also gives you some ammo because a lot of the strategies are dealing with managing conflict and relationships. There are some useful strategies in there to bring with you to the holidays.
Dr. Travis Bradberry is the award-winning co-author of Emotional Intelligence 2.0 and the cofounder of TalentSmart, a think tank and consultancy that serves more than 75% of Fortune 500 companies and is the world’s leading provider of emotional intelligence tests and training. His bestselling books have been translated into 25 languages and are available in more than 150 countries. Dr. Bradberry has written for, or been covered by, Newsweek, Business Week, Fortune, Forbes, Fast Company, Inc., USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and The Harvard Business Review.