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Dealing with Relatives

Dealing with Relatives: How to Prepare Yourself for Family Gatherings

Dealing with Relatives: How to Prepare Yourself for Family Gatherings

THE RULES OF NON-ENGAGEMENT WITH RELATIVES: How to Prepare for Family Gatherings

Adapted by Dr. Rick Brinkman from the book: Dealing with Relatives, Brinkman & Kirschner.


Relatives have a unique relationship with you that is different for three reasons.

1. You did not choose them.  Yes, you choose your spouse, so he or she is not a relative. But what most people don't realize is the spouse comes along with bonus people! Feeling out of choice can easily lead to feeling like a victim.

2. Relatives are also hard to deal with because they tend to cross boundaries that no one else in your life would cross including a good friend.

3.  And relatives who are immediate family can be tough because they themselves are triggers to the past. Just as you can hear a song that suddenly takes you back in time, so it is that a family member can trigger old ways of relating or conflicts.

Therefore the first thing to remember when it comes to attending family events is you always have a choice:

1. Go and Suffer

2. Don’t Go (and possibly feel guilty)

3. Go with a different attitude

4. Go with a different attitude and behavior

I would suggest #4, a shift in attitude and behavior. Keep in mind your ability to make that shift will serve you in many more places than just this one event. Think of it like going to the gym and you are going to work out your communication and attitude muscles. 

To support you I suggest The Rules of Non-Engagement:  

1. Decide In Advance
Make a conscious choice about the kind of experience you’re going to have when you get there, before you arrive.

Liam says:

“I make a conscious choice to have a pleasant experience, no matter what. By reminding myself what I want from this experience, I have more control over my state of mind and the tone of any conversations we may have.”                

But it isn’t enough to make the choice not to have problems with a predictably argumentative relative.  You also want to make a conscious choice about what topics to steer clear of, and what you will do if those topics come up.

Carissa told us:

 “My mother-in-law has strong opinions about everything. If I responded to the troubling things she said, just for the sake of discussion, I was guaranteed an argument, and more likely an attack, which almost always led to a fight with my husband in the car on the way back home after visiting her! But I now realize that I have a say over what ultimately gets discussed, because I can avoid the problematic topics when they come up.  Now, on the way to her place, before I talk with her, I do a little talking with myself.  I tell myself exactly what I am willing to talk about and what I’m not willing to talk about no matter what, and I stick to it.”                                 

2. Plan for Sore Subjects


"My husband’s former mother-in-law is a sore subject with my in-laws. Her name was Maggie.  Mention her name to either of them, and they spin off in anger.  To make matters worse my mother-in-law somehow, she finds a way to bring up Maggie’s name to me in every other conversation. We could be talking about food, travel, pets, children, whatever, and then for no obvious reason, she brings up the subject and starts reacting to it. Next thing I know, she’s telling the same story for the gazillionth  time about how inconsiderate she was, how mean she was, how absolutely awful she was.”

"I used to try and convince her that she should live and let live, but my efforts never worked.  Now when she starts talking angrily about Maggie, I just nod my head, wait till she’s done, and then change the subject to anything else!  I am purposely vague.  I just say ‘uh-huh.’  And if she asks me, ‘What do you think?, I know she isn’t really wanting my opinion, so I say ‘Well you know what's best for you.’  And the funny thing is when I do that she tells my husband, ‘I’m crazy about that girl.  She is so wise.’”

Joseane’s plan is simple.  She acts like she’s listening, and when she’s asked to take a position, she defers to the questioner for the answer.

This is also the way to deal with criticism from relatives. You can speak to their intent instead of getting caught up in the content of what they’re saying. If your relative says: “You should dress up more,” you can say, “Thank you for caring about my appearance.”

If your parent asks you, their adult child, whether you are brushing your teeth, you can reply, “Thanks for caring about my hygiene.”

By refusing to get caught up in the content of what they’ve said, you have time to breath, gather your wits, and create a cushion of non-engagement around yourself.

3.  Keep Your Perspective & Use Reminders

Garth told us: 

“Whenever we find ourselves obligated to attend some kind of family function, I’ve developed the habit of reminding myself that ‘all things will pass’.  I get a small red stick-on dot that I put on my watch to mark the time we’re leaving. It’s a perfect stealth reminder that helps me keep my perspective.”        

You should also partner with other family members who understand the difficulty of dealing with that special someone.  Develop a signal system, exit strategy, or other method of mutual support that can get you through the worst behavior without engaging with it.

By developing your options in advance, you support yourself and transform the stress of a family event into shared success.

I wish you good luck.


Dr. Rick


Dealing with Relatives - The Five Choices

Everyone has family that is sometimes difficult to deal with. But if you’ve had it with the criticism and rudeness, if you’re fed up with interference, tired of taking orders, unwilling to be taken advantage of, or frustrated with egotism,don’t despair. Remember, you always have a choice. In fact, you have five choices:



Dealing with Relatives - Handling Criticism


DEALING WITH RELATIVES - Tip Du Jour "Dealing with Criticism"

When being criticized the first thing to always keep in mind is that when people criticize, they are the ones with the problem not you. They have an issue with something and are projecting it on you.

The second thing to do is not engage in the content of the communication. Keep the focus on them, not you. You do this by speaking to "intent" and not "content". Intent is the purpose behind a communication. Content is the communication itself.

So if someone makes a rude comment about how you look, instead of defending yourself you can just say, "Well I didn't realize how fashion conscious you were." You are making a statement about her, not you.

Even better is to project positive intent. That means you act like she has good intentions even if she doesn't. An example of this would be, "Why thank you for caring about how I look. That is so sweet of you."

You have now accomplished a two fold purpose. One, if she is out to get you and you can't be gotten, it messes it up for her. Second you have trapped them into the positive intent. It is unlikely they will say, "No you stupid #^&*# I'm trying to cut you down.” Instead they will not deny your positive projection and will be forced to go along with the positive direction you set.

What if the criticizer is a parent? With parents, projecting positive intent is absolutely, positively the way to go. If they say you are fat, thank them for caring about your health and well being. If they want to know when you are getting married, appreciate them for caring about your relationship happiness.

These kinds of positive projections will melt a parent. Parents in general feel under appreciated by their children. Usually when you positive project on a parent they roll over and start kicking their leg like a dog getting it's stomach rubbed. They will forget all about what they were criticizing you about and bask in your appreciation. Then you can just change the subject.

Prepare yourself! What positive projections will you say, when they say, what you know they will say. ;-)



Dealing with Relatives Tip of the Day

Family-in-Kid-lettersFIND SOMETHING SPECIAL This is one of my favorite story / strategies told to me while doing interviews for the Dealing With Relatives book. It’s about going to a family gathering with the attitude of finding something special.

"Attitude is so important, you have to look for the good. When I was a little girl my dad used to play a game with me. We would go out for long walks, and in order to get me to walk another few minutes with him, he’d say pick a number between 50 and 200. Then we would walk that many steps, stop and look for treasure. And the neat thing was, when we looked, we always found something to treasure. Whether it was a pretty rock, a bug, or a leaf, branch, or flower, there was always something to appreciate as special.

So now when I go to a family gathering, I look for something to treasure, and sure enough, I always find something. It could be a three minute conversation with an uncle, or with a cousin I haven’t talked to before. One time I was chatting with the 24-year-old son of my cousin and his girlfriend, people I didn’t really know at all. They were fascinating people who were cool natural-food types and did interesting things in their lives. We had fun talking for an hour.

And the only reason this conversation happened was that I had decided ahead of time to look for a treasure. I saw people I didn’t know, and I sat down with them to see what treasure was there."

What's your special attitude going to be?




Dealing with Relatives Tip of the Day

  Over the next couple of weeks I'll be posting my favorite stories and strategies I've heard for dealing successfully with relatives. Here's the first:

Have a Mantra. There's a couple I know, who before leaving the house for an event, will look each other in the eyes and simultaneously say, “Just visiting.”

When they arrive, but before they ring the bell they look at each other and say, “ Just visiting.“

During the event if things start getting stressful they just give each other the look and silently say to themselves, “Just visiting.”

A pair of adult sisters use with their mother, “She's just making conversation.”  That prevents them from getting caught up or taking too seriously their mother’s wild tangents or illogic. Instead they remind themselves, “She’s just making conversation,”  and that gives them permission to not engage, but just simply change the subject.

What's your mantra?




Dr. Rick Brinkman Talks About Dealing with Relatives on AMNW

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Dr. Rick Brinkman, co-author of the international best selling McGraw-Hill book, Dealing With People You Can't Stand, How to Bring Out the Best in People at Their Worst, appears on Portland, Oregon's AM Northwest to talk about dealing with relatives.



Dealing with Relatives: Rules of Non-Engagement, During stage 1

There are three parts to the Rules of Non-Engagement: Before, During and After.   In the last post we looked at how to prepare yourself before the family event. In the next few posts we will look at what you can do in the "during" phase. DURING STAGE:

- Supporting your energy

Marta told us:

"My mom loves to make cookies and cakes, and I love to eat them. Problem is,all that sugar gives me headaches and makes me cranky.And when I’m cranky, Mom and I have problems. So I’ve told her that the only time I’m going to eat the fun food is at night, so I can be fun for her to be with all day long."

Juanita told us:

"I take naps in the afternoon, usually when my dad turns on the TV to watch sports. I used to sit around all day hating the sound of the TV and wishing I could be somewhere else, but not anymore! I tell my parents that taking naps is part of my health regime, and they not only accepted the idea, but my mom liked it so much that she does the same during my visits. Dad gets to watch sports in peace, and both Mom and I feel refreshed when dinner time rolls around. It’s been great for everyone."

- Remove some Stress

If you can relieve a relative of just a little of their stress, your good deed will come back to you as an grateful family member who is easier for you to deal with.

Darren told us:

"My mother gets stressed when things don’t seem to be getting done or she’s worried about something.This has gotten worse over the years as she has aged, because she can’t do as much cleaning as she used to. So we do things for her, and turn clean-up time into a family activity. We might say, “Come on kids, let’s go outside and rake some leaves!” If she expresses wor- ries about finances, I get on the Internet and do some research for informa- tion on refinancing.Anything she expresses worry or concern about is an opportunity for me to lower her stress load.The result is that instead of a stressed-out and worried mother when we visit, I get to enjoy her company."

Fred writes:

"My dad-in-law is kind of a dud, and being a dud around company drives my mother-in-law crazy. So I try to engage him in things, take him out for a game of golf, invite him to come with me for a run to the store, anything that gets him away from her and gives her a break. She’s a lot happier when we visit now."

Tune in over the next few days for more and check out the resources at:



Dealing with Relatives: The Rules of Non-Engagement, Before Stage

I recently did an interview with Woman's World about preparing for the holidays, (read "Relatives!"). I reviewed some of the many interviews we conducted when writing the Dealing With Relatives book. Over the next few weeks I will share some of my favorites so you can be prepared. The first is called "The Rules of Non-Engagement".  There are three phases, before, during and after. In today's blog we will look at the "before" phase.


- Prepare yourself

A mantra to maintain perspective:

A good friend of mine, just before ringing the doorbell turns to his wife and says, "Just visiting."

A couple of sisters prevent being pulled into their Mom's inane conversations with the mantra, "She's just making conversation."

Someone else told me they put a Red dot on watch on the hour they are leaving. To maintain perspective he just has to glance at his watch.

- Seek allies, other family members who are supportive and plan together.

Make contact with other family members with whom you have a good relationship and set up signals to help each other bail from a conversation or distract.

- Mentally practice what you will do with tough conversations or criticism.

Here is my advice.

1. Acknowledge some positive intent.

2. Be clear about your intent

3. Schedule.

i.e.: "I appreciate your openness in sharing the intimate details of your new love, however this might not be the place with the kids. Let's talk about it later."


1. Acknowledge positive intent

2. Change the subject

Statement: "Looks like you put on a little weight since last year."

1. "Thank you for caring about my well being." (then change subject).

Tune in tomorrow for more and check out the resources at:



Tis the Season to Deal with Relatives

I recently was interviewed by Woman's World magazine on Dealing with Relatives. I believe the article is in the current issue. Here is a link to access a PDF version or simply click on the graphic.

But wait there's more!!!

In case you haven't gotten it yet here is a 90 minute audio-seminar I did last year on Dealing with Relatives. It covers Martyrs and Judges and defusing your reactions. And speaking of defusing, while you are at the Relatives web page check out the hypnosis audio. It will defuse your triggers with Relatives from the inside out so they can do what used to drive you crazy and it won't matter to you anymore. I have gotten great feedback over the year on it's effectiveness. You'll find it all at: