Conversations when meeting family and friends “back home”…

Internationals sometimes ask me about how one can make sure that during our stays “back home” we have meaningful conversations with our family and friends? 

Many internationals spend hours in planes, trains, cars, wait in long lines – in traffic, airports, train stations etc…. – having their journeys delayed on their way “back home” or back to a place where family and friends await.

While doing all this we take care of our children, pet(s), and make sure everyone is ok before, during and after the journey.

We do all this just to be “there” on time. To meet with family, friends and of course, to have some holiday feeling, catch up with them.

Most of us expect to share what we’ve done, experienced, what we’re looking forward to since the last time we met… and we want to have some meaningful conversations with our family and friends that we will cherish like a present when we leave again.

We all have expectations when turning back home for holidays or generally, when visiting our family and friends.

We don’t expect everything to be perfect, but what we wish is that people “see” us and “listen”. As simple as that. We want a confirmation that they are still interested in us, even if we live far (far) away.

In my lifelong experience with this “catching up over summer / Christmas / easter…” I have noticed that we can separate them into two kind of people:

  1. People we haven’t met in months or years, but when we meet, it seems like we just met them yesterday. Conversations flow, there is genuine mutual interest in what the other has done, experienced and there is no judgment, but sincere joy, compassion and empathy. – Usually time flies and we would prefer staying longer.
  2. People who ask us how we are doing, listen to what we have to say, but mainly speak about themselves, compare what is “better” or “worse” (and usually what they do and have is “better”…). They involve us in conversations where we can’t really participate (about aunt x and cousin y we don’t know much about…, or about facts that we are not aware of because we live abroad). Most of the conversations are unilateral: they talk, we respond, but their main intent is us to listen to them, mostly agree on what they say (even if we don’t agree…). – When we leave, we are disappointed and relieved at the same time. We haven’t had the chance to share with them what we wanted – mainly because they were not ready to listen.

It all depends on the way we manage our expectations when we  meet with family and friends. When we only have a few hours to spend together, we won’t share all the details of our last project. We will rather focus on some important details we want to share.

Also, we need to translate them in a way that our family and friends can understand them – I’m not talking about translating them into another language (that too, sometimes) but to translate them in words they understand, that are part of their vocabulary, their world of reference, and that they can relate to.

When we talk about our children, the school systems may be different, the curricula and the languages are different. When we talk about our jobs, the clients, the business culture etc. expectations are different.

Tips on how to have meaningful conversations

For me it is important to have meaningful conversations.

I don’t like to spend the whole time of a visit with small talk, or talking about issues that have been mentioned the year before, or that come up at each visit.

A meaningful conversation for me is when I have the feeling that the other person listens to what I say, and I can also listen to her (find my post about the importance to listening here).

I call it being in the “us-zone” for a moment. This “us-zone” is where we meet and where we work on our relationship.

That is where we grow together and find our common ground – our common interests, what we agree on, what we like, what makes us happy and helps us also look forward to meeting again.

It might sound superficial, but when time is short, we don’t want to spend it arguing or discussing about the frustration one person has about an issue etc..

When someone expresses his frustration about something, I tend to let him blow off steam, and try to help him or her refocus on something else. In fact, it doesn’t mean that we don’t want others to share their hardships: sometimes this is necessary. But surely not every time we visit. This can be dealt with in many different ways that I will share in a separate post.

I have found it very useful to prepare 3 to 5 subjects that I want to share at each visit. These need to be things I want to share to an extent that doesn’t require long explanations as the attention span from both sides is usually quite short when there are time constraints, so, in order not to leave frustrated in the middle of a conversation, I prefer keeping it short.

As a child I have experienced many times that during a visit nobody really wanted to talk with me. Especially when nobody was interested in my opinion, I felt excluded and “not seen”. My grandfather was the only one who would take the time to sit with me and ask me many questions about what I think, what I’m interested in etc..

Most of the time, others (grown ups) decided on the subjects and I was only the listener. – I still get bored very quickly when someone else is doing the talking and expects others only to listen. In this case, today, I don’t hesitate to leave the table…

But we can avoid these situations by re-directing the attention to another topic, or by asking open questions.

I advise my children to think about 3 to 5 things they want to share with family and friends, and to share the most important one first. This way they learn to take the initiative to start a conversation (which fosters their conversation skills), or to re-direct a conversation to a subject that interests them, which can lead to a greater conversation where family and friends can discover facets of our children they would have missed otherwise.

There are also some topics we want to avoid: those that are repeated at every visit, that make us upset, or that we just don’t want to talk about for some reason. – This requires some preparation too, as sometimes these topics pop up from nowhere and tend to take over. It’s good to have a strategy to end the conversation and re-direct it to a topic that everyone enjoys.

What is your experience with conversations with family and friends?

Do you have some strategies to make sure your conversations are meaningful?

Please share in the comments here below.

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