“Ask A Trainer” is our monthly email dedicated to answering questions about Safe Conversations, written by an SC Senior Trainer.

QUESTION: How can I practice Safe Conversations in difficult adult sibling relationships?

Siblings, like farm animals, are so cute when they’re young…and then they grow up! Sometimes they stay cute and frisky, but often they grow into beasts we barely recognize. And newsflash, so do WE!

So, what do we do when the beasts take over the farm? I know, I’m being a little dramatic here, but let’s face it, at times it can feel that way. Especially because…

  • Family gatherings can be some of the most uncomfortable and triggering events ever.
  • Seemingly innocent conversations about the cousins and grandkids can go south in an instant.
  • And heaven forbid we get into a chat about the parental units…oh my. How is it that two kids raised in the same home can grow up to have completely different sets of parents?

There’s a relatively (see what I did there?) simple explanation as to why we find it so difficult at times to connect with the very person who shares our DNA and practically all our childhood experiences. It’s that rascally critter we at Safe Conversations have discovered is the instigator in pretty much every dispute, every flare-up, every conflict we see; it’s our Objection to Difference.

We object to, feel threatened by, are irritated at, or confounded by how differently from us our sibling thinks, acts, and/or processes things. They just aren’t being/doing/saying/ it RIGHT!

To break it down, one of the keys to a safe conversation, and a healthy relationship in general, is differentiation. There’s a big, long psychological explanation of differentiation, but for our purposes here in a nutshell it means that “I acknowledge that even though you and I grew up in the same house, we each experienced our childhoods in our own way, from our own unique perspective. Your childhood experiences are just as real and true for you as mine are for me.”

The kicker is that we often have strong expectations of our siblings, based on our shared past and our inability to differentiate. When they don’t meet those unspoken expectations – when they have the audacity to grow into their own, independent, autonomous adult – we feel confounded, annoyed, and disoriented. 

How could this blood-of-my-blood choose that path in life? How could they vote that way? How could they forgive weird Uncle Bob??

If one key to a safe conversation is differentiation, then how do we do that? How do we let go of our objection to those differences between us? What would that even look like?

Simple. It looks like you taking a breath, looking at your sibling with fresh eyes, and realizing they’re entitled to the truth of their own experiences. You’re differentiated, remember? YOU have YOUR life experiences, too; ones that shaped who you became as an adult. All you need to do is let them have theirs and then drop it.

It’s not the differences that get us, folks. It’s our objection to them, and our insistence that the other be just the way we think they should be! Sounds kind of silly when you see it in writing, doesn’t it? But we all do that to our siblings, our parents, our kids.

Bottom line: Give your siblings the gift of letting them be who they are.

Accept that they’re different from you and that’s healthy. Be curious, learn more about their differences and share yours with them. Drop the criticism, judgment, and expectations, and replace them with curiosity, acceptance, and grace. You’ll find yourself in the company of a cute, frisky critter again before you know it!

– Keva Ward
Safe Conversations Senior Trainer