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Illustration by Brittany England

You’ve probably been to many a holiday gathering that didn’t turn out as quite festive as it could have.

Between differing political views, eating habits, and even musical tastes, getting along with a roomful of people simply because you’re related to them is no small feat.

Despite the cultural differences that divide you, you may still feel the desire to connect to family members who you once felt close to.

Maybe there’s an uncle who used to give you piggyback rides or a second cousin you used to make mud pies with. There could be a new bundle of joy in the family who you find yourself fawning over, even though you had a falling out with the parents at the family reunion last year.

While there will always be belief systems, opinions, and politics to divide, common ground may not be as elusive as you think.

With the help of a few simple practices, you may connect in deeper ways than you ever thought possible. Learn how below.

Koshin Paley Ellison is a Jungian psychotherapist, cofounder and guiding teacher of the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care, and author of “Untangled: Walking the Eightfold Path to Clarity, Courage, and Compassion.”

He suggests looking at your time with your family as a practice, the same way you’d practice meditation, a martial art, or yoga.

You can tell yourself, “I’m going to practice being together with my family in a different way,” Paley Ellison suggests.

His method? A four-part practice to stay steady in heated or triggering moments.

It consists of:

  1. groundedness
  2. softness
  3. uprightness
  4. openness

Groundedness

Start with getting grounded, a technique that’s sometimes used for anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

To start, feel your feet on the ground or your seat in the chair.

“Just sitting at that table for many of us is super activating, right? When you start to feel yourself getting swept up or reactive or even before that, just literally feel your sit bones in the chair,” says Paley Ellison.

This deceptively simple practice can provide a split-second moment of reflection and reorientation. It can be enough to choose a different outcome than your knee-jerk response.

Softness

The next step, according to Paley Ellison, is to find a little softness.

You may notice you tense up at an off-color joke or a criticism of your tofu casserole. Simply place a hand on the belly and notice if you can breathe into it, releasing any physical tension or tightness.

If needed, you can even step out for a moment and practice a breathing exercise.

Uprightness

Next, focus your attention on holding the spine upright. This part of the practice serves as a physical anchor as well as a symbolic one.

“Allow yourself to say, ‘Okay, I know I could go off the rails right now. In my mind, my words, in my actions, I can explode or shut down.’” suggests Paley Ellison.

As you take that moment to bring awareness to the uprightness of the spine, reframe the situation.

“‘Can I actually manifest my values right now? How can I be loving towards myself and others right now?’” Paley Ellison asks.

Openness

The final step is to open.

“Just open your shoulders a little bit, because we tend to kind of hunker down,” says Paley Ellison.

Like uprightness, this posture is symbolic too.

“It’s like, ‘I can hold this in a broader way. I got this,'” Paley Ellison adds.

If you’ve had the experience of returning home for the holidays and suddenly feeling like you’re a kid again, you’re not alone.

“So often we feel very triggered like we’re no longer our age,” says Paley Ellison. “You go home and you feel like you’re eight years old again or four years old again, and you’re having the same kind of dynamics with parents or grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings, etc..”

When this happens, you don’t need to be hard on yourself or push your childhood feelings away.

“It’s really about learning how to slow down and say, okay, I’m not five years old right now. I have the five-year-old in me,” says Paley Ellison. “Now, how do I come back to what my values are?”

This process takes a tremendous amount of practice and patience, so go slowly and remember to be kind to yourself when things get tough.

While it may seem like a paradox, both emptying and honoring yourself are about holding space for everything that’s present. This can include your history, identity, and past traumas, as well as those of your loved one.

Paley Ellison illustrates the idea of emptiness with a Zen parable.

The overflowing teacup

A very academic person went to visit a Zen tea master. He said, “I want to know everything about emptiness and Zen.”

The tea master simply nodded.

As the academic asked question after question, the tea master continued to pour the tea until it overflowed the cup and spilled out onto the floor.

The academic said, “Stop! What are you doing?”

The tea master replied, “I’m showing you your mind.”

This parable illustrates the idea that when you come with your mind already filled up, there isn’t room for a new perspective.

Emptying yourself means being open and ready to receive the other person: their feelings, experiences, and even their unsavory opinions. It’s creating space for connection.

However, that doesn’t mean you have to agree with everything—or anything—they say. It simply means you allow space for something other than your preconceptions or past experiences.

Paley Ellison suggests asking, “What else is true?”

To stick with the tea metaphor, think of it as bringing a cup with just a little bit of tea. That little bit of tea represents your experience, your perspectives, and your identity.

By leaving space in the cup, you allow room for your loved one as well.

At the same time, you honor your own pain as part of what makes you human.

“We have to start with our suffering,” says Paley Ellison. “How do we untangle our specific hurt so that we can connect to the whole world? It’s not dismissing our hurt. It’s honoring our hurt and our specificity…so that we can actually connect more to the wider world.”

As you empty yourself of any objectives or judgments about the other person, you can start to get curious about their way of seeing the world.

You can think about how little you know about how they experience life, about their past, and about their day-to-day.

Cultivating this curiosity will help you stay engaged and open, even when tough subjects come up.

“Just wonder about them,” says Paley Ellison. “What is it that they enjoy? Or what do you think it’s like? I tend to ask myself what’s it like for them when they lay down in bed at night and close their eyes. What’s it like when they wake up in the morning and open their eyes?”

A friend of Paley Ellison’s suggests asking yourself whether your loved one likes carrots.

This openness, curiosity, and even a little bit of silliness can broaden your orientation to make space for ways of connecting you may have never considered before. It can also defuse tension.

To take it a step further, imagining your loved one as a child can be a powerful way to open yourself up to their lived experience.

You can ask yourself what their childhood might have been like, how they might have been treated by their parents, siblings, or peers, and what hardships they might have endured.

Did your loved one grow up in poverty and develop resentment toward what they see as “frivolous” spending? Did they grow up with a house full of children, so can’t understand their own child’s choice not to have any? Did they have emotionally unavailable parents, and so don’t know how to respond when sensitive subjects come up?

When the answers to these questions seem murky, turn back the clock and visualize a little version of the person you see today.

How did their experiences shape them, for better or for worse, and how can your awareness of that lead you to a deeper sense of empathy for them?

In the midst of interacting with a loved one who drives you a little up the wall, explore the scenario from their perspective.

Ultimately, all relationships are a two-way street.

“Maybe I drive them crazy,” says Paley Ellison. “That’s the humbling part, to realize that we’re part of it.”

This realization can also bring a little bit of humor into the situation.

There’s a big difference between hearing and listening.

American psychologist Carl Rogers taught active listening as the practice of repeating back or paraphrasing what you hear to confirm your understanding with the speaker.

Deep or empathic listening takes it a step further, engaging listening that’s characterized by:

  • generosity
  • empathy
  • support
  • accuracy
  • trust

According to David Rome of Mindful.org, deep listening is an ongoing practice of suspending self-oriented, reactive thinking and opening up to the unknown and unexpected.

Rome also notes that trust doesn’t imply agreement. Instead, it’s the “trust that whatever others say, regardless of how well or poorly it is said, comes from something true in their experience.”

Another deceptively simple practice is to find a single quality about your loved one that you can appreciate.

“Find one thing about them that you can love,” says Paley Ellison. “Maybe it’s a freckle they have. Maybe it’s like the way that their eyes are shaped. Find something where they’re not an object, that makes them human again—so that we can be human again.”

That empathy can be the starting point for something deeper: loving-kindness. Also known as metta meditation, loving-kindness involves invoking a felt sense of compassion and empathy for yourself and others.

There’s even some research behind it.

A 2015 study of 38 individuals who participated in loving-kindness meditation showed reductions in self-criticism and depressive symptoms. They also showed increases in self-compassion and positive emotions for 3 months after the end of the study.

In a 2018 study, both mindfulness and loving-kindness meditation were found to be potentially supportive in treating a wide range of clinical conditions. These included:

Try it

Watch a loving-kindness meditation, known as Tonglen, guided by American Tibetan Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön on YouTube.

In a 2019 study, an adaptive strategy of acceptance was shown to aid in cortisol recovery, allowing quicker recovery from stress.

The same can be true for a stressful interaction with a loved one.

While it may be hard to hear, no matter what your loved one says, does, or believes, it’s possible to accept them as they are.

Acceptance isn’t about condoning their behavior or opinions: it’s about accepting that they are the way they are, and it isn’t your job to change them.

When you do this, you may feel a sense of relief, especially if you previously felt responsible for changing your loved one’s mind about a topic that’s important to you.

While you don’t have to hide your feelings, opinions, and beliefs, you also aren’t responsible for those of others. When you let go and allow others to be as they are, even if you don’t like the way they are, you’re freed up to interact with them without pressure.

There’s even a therapy method focused on acceptance. It’s called acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). It involves redefining your relationship with your feelings rather than trying to manage, control, or suppress them.

Instead, even unpleasant or distressing feelings can be present as part of your experience without trying to ‘fix’ them.

A similar strategy can be applied to interacting with your loved ones, especially if it brings up fear, tension, anger, or hurt.

“To love someone is to love everything about them, even the things you don’t understand or like.”

— Koshin Paley Ellison’s grandmother, Mimi Schwartz

In short, connection is about making room for the other person to take up space. It’s a reminder that they’re human: flawed, complex, and feeling, just like you are.

“How do you find the humanity in who’s in front of you,” asks Paley Ellison, “which is to find deeper humanity in yourself?”


Crystal Hoshaw is a mother, writer, and longtime yoga practitioner. She has taught in private studios, gyms, and in one-on-one settings in Los Angeles, Thailand, and the San Francisco Bay Area. She shares mindful strategies for self-care through online courses at Simple Wild Free. You can find her on Instagram.