I’ve learned much about interacting with people through my career experiences and training—including some of your training—as an engineering project manager. I have been quite successful at putting these skills into effect, and have even taught some of them to my kids. However, I have had very little success in applying the same skills with extended family members. In particular, these are people who have not been a part of my daily life for many years i.e., we get together occasionally but don’t interact regularly.
Although many relatives relate to me as the person I am today, my siblings, parents, and some cousins insist on treating me as the person I was many years ago as a child or teenager. They refuse to acknowledge any of my growth. I find it difficult to have meaningful relationships with people who treat me as they remember me as a child despite the fact that I am in my 50’s, have had a successful career, and have raised three successful children. Do you have any advice for how to hold these kinds of conversations?
Stuck in the Past
Dear Stuck in the Past,
I can relate. I married the second youngest of eight children, which at the time seemed to be all upside. I was instantly part of a large family with lots of brothers- and sisters-in-law as well as many nieces and nephews. They are a wonderful family and I really enjoy my interactions with all of the siblings. What I didn’t realize at the time we were married, is that I was joining the family in a pre-established position of sorts.
My wife’s oldest brother is ten years older than she is, and for years, treated me like his little sister’s boyfriend when it came to certain matters. It wasn’t that he wasn’t nice and inviting, he just discounted my experience and wisdom on important topics. And it took years to change the overall tenor of our shared experiences.
So first of all, remember to be patient. This can take time—especially when the frequency of your interactions is every two years versus every four to six months. The challenge you face is a data challenge. The impression members of your extended family have is based on experiences, third party information exchanges between relatives, and distant memories—the kind that feel 100% fresh and accurate, but are more likely half distorted and fuzzy. All these things come together to form impressions which remain long after the data supporting them has ceased. And while communication can help in this type of situation, what really needs to happen is to alter their data stream, or in most cases, create a whole new data set based on who you are today. Let me further illuminate my meaning.
Some years ago, I was working on a project where we tried to showcase the skills and knowledge of recently hired employees. Or more specifically, get these employees to demonstrate their ever-growing knowledge base and understanding of their industry. These new hires tended to be younger and had little-to-no industry experience. This being the case, they found that leaders, especially those who had been in the organization for a long time, had trouble seeing these newer employees as much more than punk kids who’d just barely graduated from school. The people who worked closely with this group of younger, newer employees (especially members within the peer group) could see their growth and treated them with more respect. Those who were more removed (similar to your extended relatives and my brother-in-law), continued to hold the group to the same level of knowledge and experience at which they first experienced the group. These impressions and conclusions were so strong, that even when one of the newer employees had a breakthrough achievement, the members of the longer-tenured leadership group would attribute that success to some fluke of circumstance.
We discovered that the key to changing these assumptions was to change the experiences—or data—that created, and perhaps more importantly, reinforced these assumptions. They needed to find a way to demonstrate their new knowledge in a way that wasn’t overly showy or ostentatious lest they give rise to a new and different story.
So if it’s really important to you that your relatives see you as “all grown up,” then here’s some ways to think about demonstrating your knowledge and otherwise changing their data streams.
1. If others aren’t giving you credit for specific knowledge (whether it’s how to raise kids, or manage finances, etc.) find a way to engage with them on that topic. Share an article or video with them and create an opportunity for discussion. It could also be as simple as finding that person at the next family gathering and starting up a conversation on the topic.
2. Another great way to give them new data is to experience the outcome of your work. Let them spend time with your children so they get the sense that you’re a more skilled parent than they give you credit for, or let them see the template you created for a smashing financial plan.
3. You might also want to start with those who have the most sway with others in the family. If you can create shifts in their perceptions, they can start to reinforce who you really are rather than who everyone remembers you used to be.
Along the way, you may still have need to use your best crucial conversations skills to correct misconceptions and inaccuracies so be prepared for that. This will be most particularly needful for the ones you interact with least. And if you find that it’s not that important to you, then take comfort and satisfaction in the person you’re becoming and the immediate outcomes you have produced.
Best of Luck!
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