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Come reunion time, madness is relatives
Behavior » Poll shows that family gatherings are nearly synonymous with strife -- but a skillful approach can ameliorate the misery.

By Kirsten Stewart

The Salt Lake Tribune

Published July 12, 2009 6:00 pm
This is an archived article that was published on in 2009, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
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All your relatives -- from infants to 80-year-olds -- under one roof, sunbaked macaroni salad, group photos in matching outfits and Uncle Bob's bear hugs (ick).

Dreading that family reunion? You're not alone.

Four out of five people have attended a "miserable" family reunion, says a new poll by VitalSmarts and the authors of New York Times best-seller Crucial Conversations . Though not a scientific study, the poll reinforces what most people know instinctively: Family gatherings invite family strife.

But VitalSmarts' Ron McMillan, co-author of Crucial Conversations, say that while we can't choose our relatives, we can choose how we react to them. VitalSmarts is a firm in Provo that consults businesses on interpersonal communications. On a whim, the group explored the dynamics of family reunions and polled 80,000 of their newsletter subscribers on the subject.

Of the 700 who responded, more than half said they expect reunions to be spoiled by an unruly relative. And fewer than 1 in 10 who encounter bad behavior step up to resolve it.

"They ignore it or avoid it or go to other family members and badmouth the offender, which spreads poison through the family and predictably makes it worse," said McMillan.

It's almost always better to confront someone with candor and respect, he said, offering five tips for making reunions bearable, even memorable:

» Work on me first. Before jumping to conclusions, ask yourself, "Why would a rational, decent person double dip? Maybe Aunt May is stressed out or hungry."

» Make it safe. When confronting bad behavior, show the person you care ..."You must be famished after that long drive."

» Just the facts. Start with the facts and strip out accusatory, inflammatory language ... "I noticed you bit into that chip..."

» Tentatively share concerns. Having laid out the facts, tell the person why you're concerned.

» Invite dialogue. After sharing your concerns, encourage Aunt May to share hers.

These are lighthearted examples. Indeed, humor can help when confronting someone, though it depends on the family culture, said McMillan. "You need to use your family's vocabulary."

Few reunions likely devolve into physical violence, though earlier this month, a Weber County man was stabbed by his brother-in-law at a family gathering. Two men in their 20s had been drinking and arguing, according to police.

But Ione Vargus, founder of the Family Reunion Institute at Temple University, said the consequences of unresolved spats can be serious. Reunions play a pivotal role in strengthening social bonds at a time when families have become increasingly mobile and estranged, Vargus said.

Salt Lake mom Emily Erasuma is among those who responded to the VitalSmarts survey. She recalls an Easter egg hunt where tempers flared over the behavior of some of the 11 grandchildren in her family.

The 40-year-old has given skilled confrontation a try, but with mixed results.

"It's definitely something that takes practice," said Erasuma. "It's a learned skill. We don't do a good job teaching our children to communicate. We don't communicate well with them and we don't communicate well with each other."

Reunion resources

Family reunions are big business and there's no shortage of groups with advice on how to make the best of them.

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A social networking site for posting invites and searching for long-lost relatives »" Target="_BLANK">

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Magazine with advice on ethnic, military, class, adoption and family reunions »" Target="_BLANK">

Help finding overseas relatives and translating messages to them »" Target="_BLANK">

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