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December 2014: Principles for Family Gatherings

A privileged dimension of my work with organizational leaders is the daily opportunity to hear real-life stories about how people respond to challenging relationships. In the last weeks of the year, the stories turn sharply towards family gatherings. For example, during the days leading up to Thanksgiving, I heard the following:

  • A family business owner’s adult daughter married a man that “just doesn’t mesh” with the rest of the family. Her parents see him as an aloof, behind-the-scenes troublemaker who controls their daughter. As they anticipate holiday encounters with their son-in-law, their anxiety kicks in.

  • Ray, a former Navy officer, told me his mother-in-law “drives me bonkers.” Ray doesn’t like some of the things she says to his young children. He considered suggesting to his wife that they spend holidays elsewhere. Instead, he launched a private campaign to get to know his mother-in-law through one-on-one encounters. He reports “amazing results” from this experiment.

  • An unmarried 36-year-old who’s having trouble “finding the right woman” gets annoyed with his mother. The mother responds with deference: “I wish you would just tell me what you want so I could give it to you.”

  • Sisters Judith and Jackie had been very close as youngsters but grew apart as each married and raised children. Two years ago Jackie donated a kidney to her ailing sister. In a gesture of reciprocal altruism, Judith’s husband, David, has decided to cover house rental expenses for Jackie’s daughter, who attends medical school.

  • A college vice president is upset about his son’s choice to delay going to college. He says to me, “It’s a bit of a slap in the face given my profession, don’t you think?”

Variations in family challenges

It’s likely that all families experience relationship challenges. In some, reactivity is milder, maturity higher and tension occasional. In less mature families, reactivity can be intense and continuous.

At issue is not the nature of the challenge, but the capacity of individual family members to respond in a way that eases the tension or makes things worse.

Ray, the Navy officer cited above, could have ignited a marital firestorm by trying to marginalize his mother-in-law. Instead, he replaced disgust with curiosity: “This is silly. I am allowing myself to get annoyed by a person I don’t really know. I wonder if she has a different side. Would she ever tell me about some of the obstacles she’s faced in her life?”

That mindset made all the difference. Ray began spending time with her in small doses. He learned that his mother-in-law, though bossy and lecturing on the outside, turned out to be less sure of herself on the inside. Hearing about some of the hardships she overcame – including the sudden loss of her brother in a drowning accident – Ray softened his criticism and came to see her as someone doing her best.

Acting on principle

Like all of us, Ray had the impulse to over-react. Instead, he decided to respond to his mother-in-law based on a sound principle: “Staying connected and avoiding cutoff is emotionally advantageous to the family.”

Responding to family members based on sound principles increases the likelihood of respectful communication and good connection. Principled decisions can be especially valuable at family gatherings, and in sticky situations when emotions run high. Here are seven principles I try to keep in mind for family gatherings:

  1. Accepting family members for who they are, without trying to change them, eases anxiety in the family. This includes allowing others to choose their own destiny without interfering, permitting others to be immature, ignorant, or to have a bad day.

  2. Families operate in triangles: one member talks to a second about a third. Skillfully managing self in family triangles reduces tension in the system. For example, staying outside of drama gives one a better chance to see what is happening without getting caught up in it.

  3. Initiating one-on-one exchanges at family gatherings strengthens the system by building connection.

  4. Spending time with the family members whom one finds most difficult can do more to grow one’s maturity than gravitating only to comfortable relationships. The one or two individuals whom one most harshly judges can be excellent candidates for attentiveness.

  5. Cultivating neutrality about potentially divisive issues stimulates calmness. In the long run, most of the things that upset people are meaningless: what kind of food is served, who gets gifts, how others dress, who arrives late, who wants to bring a friend or lover, etc. See the bigger perspective.

  6. Not every opinion has to be voiced.

  7. Not every question has to be answered.

Doing “what comes naturally”

I’ve noticed a common, unfounded belief that often gets in the way of principled behavior: “It’s important to do what comes naturally.”

No it isn’t.

A lot of damage is done by individuals who are simply “being myself.”

“What comes naturally” includes debating with others who have a contrary political or religious view, lashing out against anyone who criticizes someone you love, making trivial issues a federal case, stomping off when you get upset, and a thousand other immature behaviors.

If you really want to bring more calmness and level-headedness into family interactions, figure out what principles make the most sense to you, and practice those principles as best you can.

Trust the principles, not the “natural” reactions.

6 Responses to “December 2014: Principles for Family Gatherings”

  1. December 01, 2014 at 7:58 pm, Larry Eggert said:

I have had the privilege of reading a number of articles regarding leadership by Mr. Engels and also attend one of his seminars. Each has been cogent and applicable in a number of leadership settings. Is there any way to be added to the mailing list for future blogs or articles?


Larry Eggert Chief of Police City of Lockport, New York

  1. December 03, 2014 at 12:53 am, Larry said:

Larry: I receive John’s updates via my subscription to the Bowen Family Systems Theory group on LinkedIn.

  1. December 03, 2014 at 1:07 pm, John Cammack said:

I’ve been working with this aspect of the Bowen theory for over a decade. it has had an amazing result in reducing the intensity of triangles in our extended family. I wish we could get members of Congress to use these principles with their own Congressional family, as i believe over time the result would be a far better functioning government.


  1. December 03, 2014 at 3:45 pm, Miriam Bellamy said:

Great prep for the trip home next week! Thanks!

  1. December 05, 2014 at 12:48 pm, Lynn Acquafondata said:

Excellent principles. I like how they put important principles into concrete actions people can take. I also thank you for your perspective on the destruction that can come from doing “what comes naturally”. That’s why this can be hard work sometimes.

  1. December 12, 2014 at 4:43 am, Paul K said:

great examples John–thanks for sharing.

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