When I tell my sister new things about my life, she just says “uh-huh,” as if it’s old news. She never engages or asks questions and tries her best to bring the topic around to herself. I don’t treat her the same way. I’m less concerned about why she does this and more interested in finding a way to communicate the idea that what I have to say is important to me and doesn’t deserve to be dismissed (without sounding bossy and harsh).
S.M. / Boston
Say something direct. You may be tempted to try to be tactful or drop hints in order to avoid sounding confrontational, but these methods often come across as passive-aggressive at best, assuming they work at all. Phrase the message in terms of your feelings, not what you “deserve.” You’re in the right, mind you, but “I need something from you” is an easier sell than “stop being so wrong all the time.” Something like “Sis, you know me better than anyone, and our conversations are important to me. Sometimes when you cut me off, it makes me feel that I don’t matter,” and so on. More or less what you wrote to me, in other words. It wasn’t harsh at all.
Directly and openly asking for what you need is a great tactic in relationships, but it might not work. If what is between you and your sister is, in fact, a communication problem, this will be the first step to fixing some bad habits and finding a more effective way of relating to each other. But maybe your sister is, in fact, a self-centered person who genuinely doesn’t care much about your life. Some people are like that, and there isn’t anything to be done to change them. I truly hope that’s not the case for you.
I have a family reunion in the offing, and I know that the topic of the family villain, “Great-Aunt Betty,” is going to come up. Given some of the dysfunction in my own generation, I feel I should listen intently and ask some probing questions about how she got that way. But I’m not sure it’s kind to encourage my elderly relatives to ruminate on her villainy and on the hurt she caused herself and others. Should I just let sleeping dogs lie?
M.E. / Cambridge
Sounds from your description as though the ruminating will happen with or without your encouragement. All you want to do is direct the flow, just a wee bit. Did you think Miss Conduct wouldn’t give you her blessing? But she will, because she — oh, heck, I’m going to trip over my own feet with this third-person thing. The point is, my mother died this year, and ever since I’ve been realizing all the questions that I never asked her about herself and my father and their families. Not Big Dark Family Secret questions, just ordinary things about why they moved here instead of there or took this job instead of that one. And now I’ll never know.
So ask! Don’t hammer, don’t interrogate, and watch for signs of upset or confusion or fatigue and back off immediately. And don’t expect their answers to be satisfying. The information you get may complicate more than clarify your understanding of Betty and her actions and the intergenerational consequences thereof.
Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology.Do your loved ones talk more than they listen? Send your questions to Miss Conduct at firstname.lastname@example.org.