The Holidays: Strengthening Your “Agile Response” Muscle

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Conflicts during the holidays aren’t always about racism, sometimes they’re just about how to prepare the meal together.

At this time of year many people are going “home” – wherever that may be – back to their roots or simply gathering with family and friends. Whether we celebrate Christmas or not, this is a moment when many people take time off.  And the holiday season elicits all kinds of articles and blog posts, particularly over the past few years, offering advice on how to “handle” our relatives and other social encounters. Publications from The Chicago Tribune to Mic to Eater offer advice on dealing with racist relatives (usually uncles). And this year the Washington Post even asked “What’s With all the Racist Uncles?” in a post recognizing that aunts and mothers can be just as racist.

So we join the chorus of addressing the question but do so with a different twist. Our emphasis is on preparing ourselves to engage fully and to do so with an intention for what kind of relationship we create in each and every response and to offer some suggestions for how we frame comments and conversations that differ or challenge our values and sense of what is right.  

  • Each of us, whether wittingly or unwittingly, enacts bias in how we engage.
  • Uncles and aunts are not racists. They may say or do things that are are biased based on a story they have about perceived racial identity.
  • When we take the perspective that we create patterns together that sometimes align with our values more than other times, we can pause, take a moment, and ask, what are our highest values and how can we create and enact those together.

So, this is an invitation to strengthen your agile response muscle and to look at the patterns we create in our relationships with those we care about. This is an invitation to look at how we create the stories that support the quality of relationships we aspire to, and to create new turns that shift those undesirable repetitive patterns or URPs.

This year, I am committed to show up fully and as my best self. As I reflect on my typical patterns I am particularly looking at:

  • When and how do I choose a response to keep the peace, or to avoid conflict, or because I question the futility
  • What is the story I am telling that supports that choice and what might be some alternatives stories?
  • How might I respond more boldly in situations where I have stayed silent in the past?
  • When might I take a moment – pause and listen before quickly responding with what I am so certain is true

 These questions put me in a better position to have productive conversations about setting the table, racism, and everything in between. It also makes the time spent together more enjoyable.

One of my favorite tools for noticing patterns in relationships in the workplace is also something we can draw upon with family. It’s called the NOREN model. NOREN stands for Notice, Observe, Reflect, Engage, Notice. You’ll notice there two “notices”, an “observe”, and a “reflect.” And just one “engage”. That ratio is intentional. It helps us show up to the engagement as the version of ourselves that we want to be.  That version is one that can responds and engages in a way that allows for a conversation where we
actually hear and consider each other.  And we may actually pause to note where there might be a more nuanced conversation, where our differences are more or less consequential, and where we might find our appreciation
and humor rather than respond with angry silence.

Here’s an example from my own family. I have two adult children who both enjoy and are used to cooking for large groups. My husband and I also love to cook. It could be the perfect recipe for a day and kitchen full of fun when we get together to prepare for a holiday meal. My children would fly in, and we would set aside hours to cook together, merging quality relational time with cooking – right? Almost.

A pattern emerged, as did our different styles. We often ended up with my daughter getting frustrated and growing short with us, my husband finding reasons to keep going back to the grocery store on his own, my son trying to help everyone get along, and myself acting stressed – sensing this wasn’t working as I had anticipated and trying to fix it .

Finally one year we had a conversation about all of this before the meal prep began. I was particularly grateful to my daughter for initiating.  The first “Notice” in the NOREN is about noticing the assumptions we are making. Each of us had different assumptions about what we were doing together and our roles.  My daughter assumed that we were doing a project. If she volunteered or was asked to make a certain dish, she saw that as her chunk of the project and felt micromanaged when someone came to join her. She wanted her responsibilities to be clear so that she could be clear that she was doing her part in time for dinner, and then give her attention to conversations.

I assumed cooking was a group bonding experience. My highest priority was the conversation, and I trusted in the process that we would finish the task in time. My husband assumed cooking was a task. He assumed that at the height of preparation, with so many cooks in the kitchen, he would be most helpful by going to the grocery store. When the time came to clean up at the end he saw his opportunity to help, and always sprang into action to make the countertops shine. My son was always in charge of brussels sprouts (his recipe is delicious). One year he heard me on the phone saying to my daughter in a joking tone, “and you’ll never guess what your brother is making: brussels sprouts.” He tried to hide his frustration but was clearly a little bit hurt. “I make that every year because you always ask me to,” he said, “not because it’s the only thing I can make.”

Once we Noticed these assumptions, we could Observe that we were all assuming we were being helpful. In Reflecting on our own behavior and patterns, we could each see where we were getting frustrated or upset. My daughter got frustrated when I came to work with her on a task because she interpreted it as a sign that she had messed something up. I recognized that I felt confused and out of sorts when we weren’t all just having fun together – wondering why my husband would keep wanting to go to the grocery store, or why my daughter seemed annoyed. My husband, whose preference would be to cook alone,  felt overwhelmed by all of us in the kitchen together, so would want to leave and return when it was time for clean up. And my son’s pattern was to attend to the tension he felt by trying to lighten the mood and being obliging.

Having Noticed our assumptions, Observed our behaviors, and Reflected on our responses and patterns. We were able to Engage in a different way and begin to enact new patterns. That very next cooking session was not perfect. Patterns exist because of repetition, and we only cook huge meals together a few times per year.  It will take some time for a real shift to take hold. But having identified our assumptions and observations out loud, we can continue to Notice again and again, and we do have more fun together while cooking. My daughter can gently remind me that she would rather work next to me on two separate dishes. My husband can spend some time with us in the kitchen chatting, and still leave when he reaches his chaos limit. I enjoy everyone together in the kitchen for parts of the day, and those parts are of high quality. Maybe next year my son will find our cooking peaceful enough that he will rock the boat by bringing a new recipe or by abandoning Brussels altogether.

Perhaps you too are preparing to spend time with someone you see less often. Is something making you feel apprehensive, even if you love this person? Maybe it is a political conversation with your uncle, or maybe it’s the way your aunt always comments on your weight, the way your cousin insists that your toddler give her a big kiss, or how someone else bosses everyone around.

This year, I am anticipating the political conversation we do or don’t have with close friends. I am asking myself: where will I choose to stay silent and where do I want to take a risk and speak up. If and when I do speak up, what am I hoping for?  Am I wanting to merely share a point of view? Am I wanting to influence? Convince? Regardless of what I do in the moment, I plan to talk through new possibilities with a trusted friend in advance to unpack, Notice and anticipate assumptions about I hold about the relationship or your interactions. Observe the situation– what keeps happening over and over? Reflect on what pattern might get created, and what else is possible.

So, as you take this time with co-workers, friends and family, we would love to hear how it goes for you!  What patterns do you observe, what different choices are you making, and what do you Notice as a consequence?  And then share it! This helps all of us see how we are in this together!!!  

AND Happy holidays!

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