Family Communication: Be PIUS This Holiday Season

By Thaddeus Camlin, PsyD

Holidays are ripe with tales of family gatherings gone sour.  Many families anticipate disruptive antics from at least one family member, maybe more.  As the beloved Lion King character, Zazu, memorably proclaimed about rabble-rousing kin, there’s one in every family, two in mine actually!  Whether there are one, two, or 10 family rascals to navigate this holiday season, SMART Recovery offers effective tips for family communication to help maximize enjoyable interactions with loved ones.

The SMART acronym PIUS outlines four core communication skills.  The ‘P’ stands for positive communication.  Before anyone jumps to ‘captain obvious’ critiques about how much of a no-brainer it is to try to communicate positively, let’s take more than a passing, dismissive glance at this important technique.  Being ‘positive’ in terms of healthy family communication does not mean one must deny reality and only see the bright side and silver lining in everything.  Quite the contrary, in fact, only trying to see the positive can be quite problematic, so much so that some use the term ‘toxic positivity’ to describe the downsides of the ‘just think positive’ mentality. Instead, positive communication is about phrasing things in terms of what we want, rather than what we don’t want.

In practice, the positive communication skill might be the difference between telling our Uncle Fred, who always seems to park himself next to the eggnog and over-serve himself to a heroic degree so he nods off during dinner, “I look forward to spending quality time with you, I hope you’re well rested enough to make it through dinner fully awake this year.”  Similar statements are instead often phrased in the negative terms of what is not wanted, e.g. “I really hope you don’t drink all the eggnog and embarrass yourself at dinner again this year.”  Telling people what you don’t want them to do can elicit psychological reactance, making family communication less likely to be constructive and quite possibly encouraging the very inner-rebel in our loved ones that we are hoping to help tame.  Generally, phrasing statements in terms of wanting a closer relationship with loved ones goes over much more smoothly than telling our loved ones what we don’t want them to do.

The ‘I’ in the PIUS acronym stands for the oft-touted ‘I statements.’  Back to eggnog-saturated Uncle Fred.  ‘I statements’ with Uncle Fred might be, “I miss our after dinner talks,” or, “I feel sad when you’re asleep so early, I miss you.”  The ‘I statements’ are less likely to activate defensiveness in others, which makes constructive family communication more likely.  Uncle Fred would understandably feel a bit criticized and defensive if told, “You can’t have any eggnog this year, you always drink most of it and then make a fool of yourself at the dinner table.”

One recent development in regards to ‘I’ statements, however, suggests that they may not be best in all forms of communication.   Some argue that using more ‘you’ statements when text messaging may be preferable because it shows interest in the other person.  Perhaps using more ‘you’ statements in texts is worth a trial-run over the holiday season.

The ‘U’ in PIUS represents ‘understanding.’  Offering statements of understanding can go a long way to bridging gaps and improving relationships.  If you know Uncle Fred prefers the company of the eggnog serving station over the rest of the family because he feels embarrassed that he is the only one at the party not married, a reflection of his feelings like, “I know these holiday parties aren’t your favorite, it means a lot that you came,” might help him feel more like he’s a part of the family.  Most people don’t enjoy feeling like the odd person out, and statements of understanding help others feel like they belong. The more people feel connected, and like they belong, the less comfort need be sought in soothing psychoactive companions.

The ‘S’ in PIUS stands for ‘sharing responsibility.’  Maybe you had enough last year when Uncle Fred’s eggnog indulgences led to the now infamous mid-dinner snooze.  Maybe you let your frustrations be known to Uncle Fred in a way that didn’t entirely align with all the healthy communication techniques in this article.  Well, an attempt to remedy might lead with something like, “Fred, I know I got upset last year about the whole eggnog thing, I was harsh when I talked to you about it, even though I was upset I could have been calmer and more respectful when I let you know my frustrations.”  There is arguably nothing more effective at diffusing tension in a relationship than initiating a dialogue with a statement of shared responsibility.

There is a final piece of good news about efforts to be PIUS this holiday season.  Even when people implement healthy communication skills expertly, it does not guarantee that Uncle Fred’s eggnog proclivities won’t get the best of him. However, when people utilize healthy communication skills they usually feel better themselves, even if others show little change.  So, even if all these skills fall flat like Uncle Fred’s head when he’s nodding off again, they might be worth a try anyway because it does feel good to walk away knowing we communicated in a respectful, healthy manner.