David Cunningham on Dealing Powerfully with Relatives over the Holidays, Part 1

This interview with Landmark Forum leader David Cunningham is presented on Landmark Education News in three parts. The interview was conducted by Sallie Felton on her Seattle based "A Fresh Start" radio program. The topic was dealing powerfully with family around the holidays.

Sallie Felton:  From the World Wide Web and Contact Talk Radio, it’s "A Fresh Start" with your host, Sallie Felton, life coach, where you’ll learn to make positive changes in your life one step at a time.  

                                    Welcome, listeners.  This is Sallie Felton with "A Fresh Start" and I can’t believe that it is actually turkey day.  It is November 27th and I think it’s quite apropos that my guest today is David Cunningham, because we’re going to talk a lot about family reunions, how to thrive, not just survive for this holiday season.  So, as I said, David Cunningham.  This is going to be a perfect topic for the holidays.  He’s a communication expert and seminar leader for Landmark Education, an international training and development company that had well over one million people use its programs to create breakthroughs in their performance, communication, relationships, and overall satisfaction.  Their website is www.landmarkeducation.com.

David, thank you for coming and being my guest today, and happy turkey day to you.

                                    David Cunningham: Thank you, Sallie.  Happy Thanksgiving to you and to all your listeners.  Happy Thanksgiving to everybody.

                                    Sallie Felton: Well, thank you.  This is a great topic for holiday survival.  We need a guide.  Say people want to go to their family reunion.  They need to learn how to thrive not just survive.  This is your field.  How does one do it?

                                    David Cunningham: Well, the first thing, Sallie, is to really be ready to be related with the people that you’re there with, and out to cause something extraordinary with people.  You know, we can have all the dinners, we can have all the decorations, but really what’s at the heart of a great holiday, no matter how great the food was, how beautiful the decorations were, what makes or breaks a holiday is the relationships we have with people and whether we enjoy the people or not.  So what we really want to focus on is how to really have extraordinary, extraordinary relationships with the people we’re with, whoever we’re spending the holiday with.

Sallie Felton: How do you do that when you don’t even want to go?

                                    David Cunningham: Well, Sallie, I had that experience myself once for an Easter, right?  I was invited someplace, rather obligated to go just because of all the different circumstances, a place I really didn’t want to go.  Here’s what I resolved for myself.  As I was going there, I said, "Okay.  You’re going to have a better time than you think you can have," and then I rang the doorbell and walked in the door with that commitment in place, like really like, "Okay," and when I walked in the door, just having committed to have a better time that I think I could have.

So I think every time we go someplace, we have a preconceived notion of how good it’s going to be.  We have a preconceived notion of how enjoyable it’s gonna be.  So the first thing would be to just get committed to you’re gonna have a better time than you think you’re gonna have, and then walk in the door looking for the opportunity for that.  And if you walk I the door looking for the opportunity to have a better time than you think you’re gonna have, guess what?  I think you’ll find a lot of ways to do that.

                                    Sallie Felton: I think that’s true.  Here’s a scenario:  What do you do when someone says something to you that makes you mad but you don’t want to ruin the holiday for everyone?

                                    David Cunningham: Well, there’s three things you could do, right?  And there’s only one of them that really works.  One thing you could do is argue, right?  You could.  Somebody says something that makes you mad, and you just want to – you just can hardly stand it.  You just so want to let them know that what they said was wrong.

Sallie Felton: Uh-huh.

                                    David Cunningham: And you could come back with your best, best, best answer that really proves how wrong they are, except guess what?  You’ll end up in an argument because then they have to defend themselves and then you have to defend yourself, then they have to defend themselves, and we know where that one goes.

Sallie Felton: Right.

                                    David Cunningham: So that doesn’t work.  And another people often try is, you don’t say anything, you just try to grit your teeth and grin and bear it, but you really are holding onto it and you still let it shape you, like whatever they said really does ruin your day because that’s all you’re thinking about, all you’re stewing about, and even though you’re not responding, it’s totally shaping you.  You’re succumbing to it.  That doesn’t work, either, because your day’s still ruined.

                                    There’s a third thing you can do, which is – it sounds simple but it really is profound.  It’s just let it go by.  Let it go by. Sometimes I imagine being a bullfighter where you just – what you don’t do with a bull, you don’t argue with it, right?

Sallie Felton: Uh-huh.

                                    David Cunningham: And you don’t lay down and let it run over you.  You know, matadors are masters at just stepping out of the way and letting things go by.  I think, Sallie, sometimes we think we have to deal with everything that people say, but people say things they don’t even mean.  People say things that they didn’t intend to be upsetting, and a lot of it, especially around the holidays – I think this is all the time, but especially around the holidays.  Let some of it go by.  Just let it go by, step out of the way, and then stay right there in the conversation and just committed to what you’re committed to causing in terms of your friendship and your relationship with that person.

                                    Sallie Felton: But if somebody says – and I’m being devil’s advocate here, David – if somebody says something that’s really irritating to you and you let it go by, how do you not let that fester?

David Cunningham: Well, because you have to relate to it for what it is.  It’s just something they said.

Sallie Felton: Uh-huh.

                                    David Cunningham: You know, one of the things that always makes something worse is not what they say but what we have what they say mean.  So there’s a difference between what somebody says and then what it means to us.

Sallie Felton: Uh-huh.

                                    David Cunningham: And I’m going to say it another way.  The story we make up about what they said or the interpretation we have of what they said and it’s really important to separate those two out.  There’s what they said and then there’s what we have it mean.  And those are two different things.

Sallie Felton: Totally two different – give us an example.

                                    David Cunningham: Well, if somebody said, for instance, "I wouldn’t have set the table this way," okay?  Suppose there you are, you’ve got the table set, and your mother-in-law says, "I wouldn’t have set the table this way," all right?  Now, that’s what she said.  What somebody could and probably would have that mean is, "She doesn’t respect me, she doesn’t honor that this is my home, she never thinks anything I do is good enough for her son."

Sallie Felton: Yeah.

David Cunningham: Right?  On and on and on.

Sallie Felton: Yeah.

                                    David Cunningham: It could be any of those things.  Now, really, though, the statement, "I wouldn’t have set the table this way," is a pretty simple statement that is just a statement about what she would’ve or wouldn’t have done, and if you can keep it for what it is, just a statement, and keep separate everything you had it mean and you’ll notice that all of the upset, Sallie, every bit of the upset is in actually what we have it mean, not what they actually said.

                                    Sallie Felton: Uh-huh.  Now, you say here, how do you appreciate someone if you’re mad at them?  Why should we appreciate someone if you’re mad at them?

                                    David Cunningham: Well, you know, why to appreciate someone even if you’re mad at them is because where, Sallie, if we really look at relationships, when we’re satisfied in a relationship is when we love who we’re being.

Sallie Felton: Exactly.

                                    David Cunningham: Okay?  And we put a lot of focus on how the other person is treating us, but you know what?  Even if someone’s not treating us good, if we love who we’re being, we’re actually pretty satisfied.

Sallie Felton: Uh-huh.

                                    David Cunningham: The opposite is also true, isn’t it?  Which is that if somebody’s being great with us but then we’re pretty cranky with them, then even them being great with us doesn’t make a difference for us because we’re still cranky.

Sallie Felton: Exactly.

                                    David Cunningham: So to really take on, even when you’re – especially when you’re mad at somebody is to appreciate them and find something to appreciate about them and at the very least – here’s – it’s really simple.  That them being there gives you an opportunity to be somebody, to be somebody you love being, gives you an opportunity to be generous or it gives you an opportunity to be loving.  And even the ones that make you the maddest, well, those are the ones that give you the biggest opportunity to be somebody really great.

Sallie Felton: Uh-huh.

                                    David Cunningham: So if we really study relationships, Sallie, one of the things you notice is that the whole point of other people like the opportunity of people, of being with people, is that without them there, we don’t get to be somebody, and the quality of our life comes from who we get to be with people.  So it’s right there, so why appreciate somebody you’re mad at is because you’ll end up being really happy with yourself.

                                    Sallie Felton: That’s true.  That’s very true.  Here are a couple questions I have.  Here are some scenarios and help us, my listeners and anyone else out there, with some of these examples.  "My husband’s so controlling, how can I have a happy holiday if he tries to control everything?"

                                    David Cunningham: Well, this one, Sallie, I think is two things.  If you know that about your husband, right?  If you know, from holidays from the past, one of the things that really works is to, ahead of holidays, ask him everything that he wants so that you actually know what he wants and he has some – he gets to say what’s important to him before the holidays ever get there so that he already knows you’re committed that he gets what he wants and then at the holiday itself, you know, I kinda always have a theory called ride the horse the way the horse is going, right?

Sallie Felton: Mm-hm.

                                    David Cunningham: So there’s – the more you would fight it or the more you would resist, probably the more controlling he’s going to try to be because he’s going to be fighting back then.  If you really just keep looking for it, there’s something that’s important to him, something – people are only controlling because – try to be controlling because there’s something important to them, and if you can just listen for and try to hear what’s really important to him and then make sure he gets it or make sure that he knows that you’re committed that he gets it, then guess what happened?  He starts paying attention to what’s important to you and that you get that as well.

Sallie Felton: Exactly.

                                    David Cunningham: So two things, again.  One is, if at all possible, before the holidays ever happen, sit down, talk about what’s going to be important to each other at the holidays and what’s gonna be important to your husband so that he knows that he knows in advance that you’re out to make sure he gets a really great holiday that he wants.  Then when the holiday’s happening itself, just keep trying to hear, okay, when he’s being controlling, what is important to him and how can I make sure he knows that I’m committed that he gets that, and then I promise, it really is amazing how much then the other person starts wanting to make sure you get what you want, too.

                                    Sallie Felton: That’s true.  Here’s another one:  "My mother-in-law doesn’t make me feel welcome.  I don’t wanna go.  How do I survive that?"

                                    David Cunningham: Well, again, one of the things there, Sallie, I think is that I wouldn’t take it personally.  If the mother-in-law’s not making you feel welcome, right?  I bet, I really would bet a lot of money, that the mother-in-law’s concerned about something you don’t even know she’s concerned about.  For instance, it may have nothing to do with you.  Maybe she’s concerned about how her house looks or maybe she’s concerned about how her food is or maybe she’s concerned about how she and her husband are getting along in front of you.  There’s a whole number of things.  Maybe your mother-in-law’s concerned about getting older.  There’s a whole number of things that she could be concerned about, and when people are concerned about something, they often don’t – aren’t able to make another person feel welcome around them.

So one of the first things I do is to not take it personal and would, again, just have some compassion that probably that person is concerned about something and give they’re concerned about it, they’re not having an easy time being with you.  And the more you can just be at ease with them and make it safe for them to be with you, then the more they’ll be able to be at ease with you, and guess what?  Then you’ll have the experience of being welcome.

Sallie Felton: Mm-hm.

David Cunningham: One other thing?

Sallie Felton: Absolutely.

                                    David Cunningham: I think we often underestimate the power of listening, Sallie, listening to people.  You know, when you really listen to people, they get really – they’re just grateful for it.  A lot of times we think what’s important is what we say to other people.  I’ve found that that is very important, what we say is very important and we want to make sure that what we say really is always empowering of others.  But on the other side of it, there’s listening to people and really listening to somebody.  I’ve always found people – I know for myself if somebody really listens to me, I’m always grateful afterward.

So sometimes, especially if somebody’s not making you feel welcome, there’s something that they want to say or there’s something that they’ve got to say that if you could just listen to, boy, would they be grateful that you’re there, and then, again, you’d have the experience of being really welcome.

Sallie Felton: How would you approach that conversation, David?

                                    David Cunningham: I don’t know if there’s any way you need to approach it.  Just if you’re – if no matter what they’re talking about, because sometimes they talk about something that doesn’t seem important or they can be talking about the weather or sometimes they’re upset and their visibly upset.  So I don’t know if you need to worry about how to approach it.  Just whatever is going on right there, if they’re talking about the weather, listen to that.

Sallie Felton: Mm-hm.

                                    David Cunningham: And if they’re talking about how the dinner’s going, listen to that.  And if they’re talking about something they’re upset about, listen to that.  And when I say listen, I really do mean give them your attention so that they know, and maybe even ask them questions, but even if it’s something – they just make a comment about the weather, just acknowledge that you heard them.

Sallie Felton: Uh-huh.

                                    David Cunningham: So I don’t think you need to go to try to get them to say anything.  Just listen to whatever they’re saying, and the more you listen to whatever they’re saying, the more they’ll want to talk to you.                            

                                   Here’s part two of Landmark Forum leader David Cunningham on dealing with family around the holidays.

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