It’s not news that the health of any relationship is dependent on the ability to effectively communicate. And in-law relationships are no different.

Since there’s so much invested in parent-child relationships, the possibility of misunderstandings that lead to hurt feelings is that much greater. And when a parent’s child gets married, it can be a difficult thing to let go and let their new spouse be the primary person in their life.

The ability for in-laws to effectively communicate with each other, then, is crucial to easing that transition and forging a positive relationship that can last.

"When two people marry, they don’t simply marry each other;" Gary Chapman writes in Happily Ever After, "they marry into an extended family consisting of mother-in-law, father-in-law, and perhaps sister-in-law and brother-in-law. These in-laws come . . . with a history of family traditions and ways of relating to one another. Whatever else we say about families, we can agree that all families are different. These differences often lead to adjustment difficulties."

But rest assured, the difficulties don’t have to last.

"In God’s plan, in-laws were not designed to be divisive," Chapman explains. "They were meant to be supportive."

So how do you ensure that your relationship is not only amicable, but amiable? How can you make sure you’re building rather than burning bridges every time you talk to your in-laws?

Chapman suggests mastering the art of communication with these simple tools:

1. The art of listening

"It is a fundamental psychological principle that we cannot read other people’s minds," Chapman writes. "We observe their behaviour, but we do not know what is behind the behaviour until we listen. Most of us have not been trained to listen. Consequently, we often misunderstand our in-laws."

Chapman breaks down effective listening into five steps:

i. Ask questions. 

"Most people do not communicate the thoughts and feelings that motivate their behaviour unless they are asked," he explains. Therefore asking questions that show you’re sincerely interested in their answers yields far better results than simply assuming you know why they do what they do.

ii. Don’t interrupt. 

While it’s tempting to want to finish their sentences or jump in when they say something you don’t think is true, interrupting will only harm your relationship. "When you interrupt and give your perspective, you have taken the first step to a full-blown argument," Chapman writes, before adding, "The purpose of listening is to understand, not make a point."

iii. Clarify meaning. 

"Even when we are consciously focusing on listening, we often misunderstand what another person is trying to communicate," he notes. "We listen through our own earphones, which sometimes distorts the meaning behind another person’s words." So be sure to take the time to ask additional questions and understand exactly what they’re saying.

iv. Express appreciation.

"Affirming statements do not mean that you necessarily agree with what your in-laws have said," he explains. "You are affirming their humanity, the right to think and feel differently from other people." Once you’ve completed these four steps – and especially after you’ve thanked them for sharing their perspective – you’re in a far better place to go on to step five.

v. Share your perspective. 

Everyone has their own perspective in a situation and yours is just as valid as theirs. "Because you listened, you are far more likely to be listened to," Chapman stresses. "Because you have not interrupted, you are less likely to be interrupted. Because you have clarified meaning, your in-laws are more likely to clarify meaning. Because you have expressed appreciation, they are more likely to express appreciation to you, and together, you can accept your differences and find healthy solutions."

2. The art of speaking for yourself

In the heat of the moment, it can be easy to put the blame on your in-laws: "You always do this" or "You never do that." But Chapman suggests taking a 180 degree turn and learning the art of speaking for yourself.

"When we begin a sentence with you, we are speaking as though we have ultimate knowledge of a person. In reality, we have only a perception," Chapman explains. "Such statements come across as condemning and will likely stimulate a defensive response from our in-laws. We end up in a major argument, and both of us go away resenting the other."

"If you begin a sentence with ‘I,’ you are reporting or revealing your feelings," he continues. "If you begin the sentence with ‘you,’ it is an attack. ‘You’ statements are like verbal grenades, which bring hurt, resentment, and often counterattacks. ‘I’ statements reveal a problem without condemning the other person."

While it may be difficult to make this change in your speech patterns, mastering this skill can reap great rewards in your relationship with your in-laws.

3. The art of negotiating

"Healthy in-law relationships require negotiation for one simple reason: We are all humans," Chapman explains. "Humans think differently and experience different emotions and reactions. Without negotiation, we allow our differences to become divisive."

When you learn how to effectively negotiate, you can build bridges with your in-laws and create opportunities to work together.

"Making a proposal is the first step in the process of negotiating. The second step is listening carefully to counterproposals," Chapman notes. "Remember, negotiating has to do with two people trying to understand each other and reach an agreement that both of them will feel good about."

"A proposal opens the opportunity for dialogue," he continues. "The process of listening, understanding, and seeking to find an agreement is the process of negotiation."

One important thing to remember when negotiating is to get into a habit of making requests, not demands.

"We cannot force our in-laws to do what we believe is ‘the right thing.’ We can and should make requests of them. If we have desires, these desires should be verbalized," he explains. "Good relationships are fostered by requesting and giving, not by demanding."

Above all, a successful in-law relationship requires a foundation of love and respect.

"Remember, love is not a feeling," Chapman notes. "Love is an attitude, a way of thinking, and a way of behaving. Love is an attitude that says, ‘I choose to look out for your interests. How may I help you?’ A loving attitude leads to loving behaviour."

When you continue to reach out in love to your in-laws, they will recognize that pattern and will likely respond in kind. And in-law relationships are too foundational to the strength of a marriage and family to not invest in.

"Positive in-law relationships are one of life’s greatest assets," Chapman concludes. "Living in harmony, encouraging and supporting each other in our individual pursuits, helps all of us reach our potential for God and good in the world."

Reference to the individuals and organizations quoted does not constitute a blanket endorsement of either the individuals’ external work or their respective organizations.

Amy Van Veen is editorial manager at Focus on the Family Canada.

© 2015 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.  

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