The art of making everyone welcome
My Why audio version of this blog available here.
Usually I focus on how to help people who are struggling with grief, loss, childlessness, and those that just don’t fit into the usual family dynamic, but occasionally I like to offer help to those on the other side (no, I don’t mean dead people), but those trying to draw alongside or incorporate people like that into their gatherings.
Maybe you’ve got a big family gathering planned soon and you have a friend or relative that’s attending that’s the only single person, or the only person/couple without children, or a family member that’s lost a child, or someone recently bereaved, or someone recently out of a relationship or marriage, or someone who’s had a tough year, and you’re just a little cautious about how to make them feel at home. Well, I’m going to offer you three top tips to ensure you do your best.
As a childless woman who’s seen all sides of gatherings I know it’s not easy for families to try and include those whose lives are very different from your own. However, there are some key things you can do to make it easier on everyone, and there’s also key things to avoid.
One theme that you'll see come up again and again, and I believe it's got a huge part to play in the upset of many conversations is making assumptions.
I was recently conversing with the wise old Lori Alcorn (a previous podcast guest) about this, on the topic of how people get it wrong when chatting to childless people and she said she remembers the following;
Assumptions make an ass of you, not me.
This made me laugh. And it’s a new take for many of us who feel like we don’t fit into societal norms, because our default position is more likely to be ‘that assumption you just made about me is hurtful but I’m going to pretend it didn’t happen and just try to adjust to fit in more’. So I’m going to remember this instead next time someone makes an assumption about my life or choices. It just makes an ass of you, not me.
Putting all assumptions aside is hard, but is a key area to making others feel welcome. Don’t fall into the trap of making assumptions based on what you think someone’s feeling or what you might do in the same situation. Never ends well and you’re not as good at it as you think you are.
I’ll give you an example of how an assumption ruins an opportunity to connect. Let’s say you’re a childless woman called Joy (just plucked that out of the air because it’s nearly Christmas and it’s a pretty, positive sounding name), recently out of a relationship where you'd had many attempts to have children that failed, and you’re visiting a family you know well with a new baby. You love babies and secretly you’re really hoping you’ll get to have a hug of the warm, soft, squishy new arrival, because you’re good with them and have been around many with your friends, in fact, the feeling of holding a baby helps you heal the pain a bit of not having your own. You arrive and enter the room where there’s quite a few people, the new parents, the baby’s young siblings, the grandparents. Here are some classic assumptions made in this scenario:
Joy assumes she can’t just ask to hold the baby because she knows some mothers are cautious about this and don’t like to share babies around. Plus, if it’s not the right time, i.e. baby sleeping, needs feeding, needs burping then mum might say no, and she fears the idea of being rejected in front of everyone and looking like the childless person that’s not allowed to hold the baby.
The new parents assume Joy won’t want to hold the baby because childlessness has been painful for her and they don’t want to rub anything in her face or make her hurt more, so assume offering the baby would look callous.
The grandparents assume they need to help the new parents with the baby and pick it up to show Joy, but are cautious about handing it over because they assume that, not having children she wouldn’t know how to properly hold one or what to do with it.
The young siblings assume that Joy might want to play with them and try to take her into another room away from the adults and baby.
I could extend this out to the whole afternoon and all the assumptions made that could be painful on all sides - but you see where I’m going with this.
So, how can you help people to feel more included, whether you’re the one in a bigger family unit wanting to help others feel welcome, or the one on the outskirts who also wants to make others feel welcome?
Fear not, as the Christmas angels say, I will help you (they didn’t say that bit, that was me). Now of course, everyone is different and what one person will see as a kind gesture to include them, another might see as a poke in the genitals, so you need to consider these tips in context with the person or people you’re dealing with and use a bit of common sense and wisdom, but on the whole I’ve tried to make them things that work across the board. If you’ve got other historical issues with this person which might cause different reactions (like you fell out before, not that you both disagree on the greatest Prime Minister of all time), well, that’s on you, I can’t fix everything.
And I actually asked other friends who have been in this situation to help me piece this together with their thoughts and experiences, so this is not just my wisdom I’m sharing.
For ease of description as we go forward I’m going to refer to the invited person as our good friend Joy.
In these situations Joy represents someone who might be grieving, alone, sad, childless, single, divorced, separated, going through failed attempts to have children, anything that the person at your gathering might be facing that’s making you think ‘argh, how do I make sure they have a nice time?’
Empathy is about standing in someone else's shoes, feeling with his or her heart, seeing with his or her eyes. Daniel H. Pink
And this is a great starting point as a precursor to everything I’m going to say. To be honest, if you can apply empathy to Joy’s situation then you don’t really need these tips, but that’s not easy for everyone (especially psychopaths, as we heard in Episode 57!).
There’s one point I’ll raise before we enter our gathering and make Joy feel at home - and that’s to make sure you invite her in the first place. I’ve heard single people, childless people, divorced people, parents of one child, parents of five children, sad people, happy people, and griefy people all say these words ‘I just don’t get invited.’ Don’t underestimate how much an invite means, even if the person says no. And don’t assume a no meant they were offended or hurt or didn’t want to, it might have meant the world that you thought to invite them, might have flattered them, encouraged them even, but it just wasn’t right for a whole host of reasons to attend, including sometimes self-preservation. The episode next episode of The Silent Why is all around Food and Grief and my guest, Lisa, speaks about how when her husband died, and she was alone, she longed for an invite to just a normal family weekday meal. It’s really hard, especially at this time of year. Look around, who could you invite? But remember, if you invite them, be prepared to also help them feel at home, not just sit them in a corner to watch your festivities, and to do that you’ll definitely need some of the pointers I’m going to go through now.
So, let’s say you’ve invited Joy, she’s accepted and then she arrives.
Tip 1 - Act like you want Joy to be there
Sounds a bit obvious and simple, doesn’t it? But I’d say the number one thing that makes these sorts of gatherings hard for Joy is feeling that she’s somehow in the way, doesn’t fit in, or the gathering would be easier without her. Again, put yourself Joy’s shoes. If you’re sat in a bustling room, alone, everyone’s busy, chatting, laughing, playing with the kids, family photos all around you reminding you of what you don’t have, think about what you would want. If you know the person well do something you know they’ll enjoy or ask them, or talk to them. Maybe sit and have a conversation, maybe start a jigsaw or game, give them the baby, find out what they like and make it happen. How?! You ask. Like this, sit down next to Joy and say: ‘Hey Joy, how was your week?’ ‘How do you find these sorts of gatherings?’ Are these sorts of get-togethers hard for you in any way?’ ‘Is there anything you’d like to do?’ If they’ve lost someone - ‘How did you and so-and-so celebrate Christmas?’ (or whatever the gathering is for)
‘What have you done over previous Christmas’s?’ And listen to the answers, don’t ask and then get distracted with the kids or something else part way through their answer. Prioritise them in your thoughts if you really want them to enjoy themselves and feel welcome. Yes, if you’ve got kids they’ll be demanding time and energy but for thirty minutes focusing on an adult in the room that’s hurting might actually make that person’s year, or even help their healing journey. And I know this might be hard to swallow, but be aware that just your day-to-day life might be triggering for them. Even what you see as a bad day with the kids or the hubby, or tiredness beyond your wildest dreams, or the stress of parenting in general, or a fight with your mother, is something someone might be wishing for.
Tip 2 - Choose your words carefully
Big mistake, big, huge. Julia Roberts as Vivian, Pretty Woman
This is the kicker, the one people so often get wrong. This is where the big mistakes come in. It’s scary that people are still this careless when it comes to conversation. Firstly, if you struggle knowing what to say to people who are going through grief or a hard time then I want to refer you to my blog ‘How to talk to the grieving’ for lots of practical tips because really they apply to anyone you’re not sure how to speak to and goes into much more detail on words to say and not say. Secondly, this largely comes back to making assumptions again.
And this one is in four sections (yup, I totally tricked you into thinking there was only three tips, when there’s kinda seven! But you’re this far in, so why stop now?):
i) Don’t ask questions that assume things.
These include questions like:
When are you having children/getting pregnant/having number two? (What if they don’t want them, can’t have them or there’s a painful situation that’s stopping this happening?)
When are you getting married? (What if this isn’t something they want or they can’t for some reason?)
Have you thought about IVF/adoption/fostering etc? (What makes you think they haven’t?! Of course they have if they want children but it’s never that simple.)
When do you think you’ll be over it? (What makes you confident they’ll ever get over it?)
Most of these questions assume everyone has the same life, and that if they don’t fit into what you’re assuming will happen they have in some way failed or fallen outside of what they should be doing. That’s a dangerous thing to put on someone.
Comparison is the death of true self-contentment. John Powell
Instead ask questions like:
‘How are you, Joy?’ or ‘How are you feeling about…?’ or if you know them well, a casual but meaningful - ‘How’s life, Joy?’ (And mean it, and listen to their answers or show them it’s a safe space to answer it honestly)
‘What sort of hopes do you have for the future?’ (This allows them to talk about family hopes, or children, or relationships or maybe jobs or hobbies. Hope is different from idolising successes like having children and getting married)
‘So Joy, what are you really enjoying at the moment?’ (Find out what they like and enjoy and meet them on their level rather than pushing the conversation towards what you like)
If you’re connecting and feel like you want to go further, spin it around and ask: ‘Anything you’re finding really hard?’ (And if they share with you empathise, without dominating conversation or comparing, share something you struggle with in a very real way so they don’t feel alone on the ledge).
And if you ask Joy a question like ‘would you like to hold the baby?’ take her at her answer. If she jumps at the chance but then you lift the baby and it needs changing, don’t forget your offer and hand her the baby when it’s appropriate or say you’ll be right back. If she looks horrified and says ‘no thank you’, just say ‘no worries, she/he’s there if you want to change your mind, but I totally get it, he’s super squirmy/burpy/sicky right now’. Things like this just keep the conversation casual without pressure and show understanding, when you lay down some information up front it shows Joy she’s welcome to pick up the baby at any point, or that you’d rather no one ever touched the baby because you have control issues (just kidding! Kinda), which eliminates any guessing on Joy’s part. If Joy is loving having the baby, leave her with it, don’t take the baby away under the pretence you think she must be tired or bored of it - that’s hurtful when it’s the only time she gets. On this note if childless people offer to do anything with children, feed them, burp them, get up with them in the night, and you turn them down, do so with the real reasons and not with any kind of ‘oh you don’t want to be doing that’, or ‘I wouldn’t expect you to do that you’ll get so tired’ - they wouldn’t offer if they didn’t’ want to and the opportunity to get up with a baby in the night is actually something some of us long to do, because it’s a one-off taste of parenting in a way we wanted. So be honest, if you don’t want them to do it because you have your own issues with it, share that, but don’t say no pretending you’re doing them a favour. Those that don’t want to do this stuff never offer.
And if you’re really lost on which way to go just give Joy the information up front with something like:
‘I don’t know if you’d like to hold Noel (another sort of Christmasy name I just picked for the baby and made into a boy's name), I don’t mind either way, but if you want to you are very welcome at any time, just go and grab him for a hug, equally if you’d rather not, that’s absolutely fine too, he’s happy where he is and I get that.’
ii) Don’t feel you need to offer advice.
If you have experience yourself, or of someone you know, that you think might help Joy because it’s relevant and it’s kind, then that might be something that helps connect and open up conversations but even that needs to be treated carefully. What Joy doesn’t need is you telling her what she should do or try, when you haven’t been there or don’t know much about it yourself. It’s another assumption that she hasn’t already got the info you want to share and she probably knows more about the subject than you do anyway. In fact never start a sentence with any human about anything meaningful that starts with ‘You should…’ Especially if you have no experience of it. E.g: ‘You should try IVF’ to couples who might be in the early days of finding it hard to conceive. Do you know what that entails? The pressure it puts on relationships? The amount of injections and drugs pumped into the body? The low success rates? The scans? The surgery? Do you really think that’s something they ‘should do’?
Or ‘You should get a divorce’ to someone who’s finding their marriage hard. Do you know what that entails? The painful ripping apart of a marriage? The financial implications? The painful meetings with solicitors? The loneliness? The heartbreak? The upheaval of a whole life? Do you really think that’s something they ‘should do’?
Or ‘You should focus on the good’ to someone who’s still grieving a loss. Do you know what that entails? Do you know that focusing on the good actually also focuses the bad? Do you know that all their ‘good’ is now different or gone because of what they’ve lost? Do you know that they might not be able to find any good right now? Do you really think that’s something they ‘should do’?
iii) Don’t make hurtful comments. Most of the comments I read that hurt people are probably well-meant by people who just haven’t got a clue what to say, so they say something stupid. And we’ve all been there - yes, even you who thinks you’ve known pain to the depths of human experience, you’ll have hurt someone in their pain. We all have. We all understand some pain, but we don't all understand all pain (I feel like that should be up on a wall somewhere!).
It’s not just happily married people that upset single people, it’s not just parents that upset the childless, it’s not just non-griefy people that upset griefy people. Child loss people upset childless, childless upset child loss, parents upset other parents, single people upset divorced people, parents upset single people - the loop goes on forever.
However, that being said there’s a lot of words you shouldn’t reach for with anyone, at any time, and we can all try to be better at this. For example, no helpful sentence talking to someone in pain ever started with: ‘at least’. Delete all those sentences right now.
‘At least you got pregnant’
‘At least you have each other’
‘At least you have your health’
‘At least you have other children’
‘At least you have more spare time’
‘At least you get a full night’s sleep’
‘At least you don’t need to use contraceptive’
‘At least you have a job’
Other phrases that have caused hurt to people we’ve interviewed are - ‘I can’t imagine’ and ‘you’re so strong’ (see the blog I mentioned earlier for more on those and why).
The last thing I want to add under ‘Choose your words carefully’ is a word that, if used, correctly can be beautiful, but used in the wrong way and it can actually hurt. It’s the little word ‘sorry’. And the context it can be hurtful in is when someone apologises for their life or a situation that the other person might wish they had. For example, if your child, or husband or wife even, is playing up, and you keep apologising to Joy for it, ‘sorry I have to go and put the kids to bed’, ‘sorry he keeps asking you if you want a drink’, ‘sorry she keeps offering you food’, then it can feel like you’re saying ‘sorry my life is so different from yours’, or ‘sorry I know these aren’t things you have to deal with usually’. So be careful about making the assumption they would need an apology for natural things that happen in family life, they might just be there to enjoy being in normal family environment and when you apologise for it it points out they’re not part of it.
iv) Don’t just talk about you!
I want to scream this into society!
Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live, it is asking others to live as one wishes to live. Oscar Wilde
Do you know how rare it is now to meet someone that actually asks questions about the other person they’re talking to, without talking about themselves the whole time?! It’s not just Joy that will be feeling this in a gathering, but we all crave conversations that are equally matched. Put it this way, if you ask about and focus on them, and they ask about and focus on you - we have the making of a great conversation and society at large. You still get to talk about yourself and share, but it’s in a way people are interested in and can converse with. And I’m going to throw this one unashamedly, largely at the foot of parents and grandparents. Sorry folks, but you need to stop talking incessantly about your children or grandchildren with people who don’t have them, and also with people who really don’t care. I know your world might revolve around them, that’s fine, but ours don’t and it’s not that interesting. There I said it. In a world where we are idolising children’s needs more than ever, it feels like a punishable offence to even stray into this territory, but someone had to go there. And don’t feel too smug loved-up couples and cat and dog people - you’re not that far behind. If you don’t have anything else to talk about, then you need to widen your horizons slightly guys, or just ask ‘How are you?’ to the other person and find out more about them. Even if it’s just to talk about a TV program, what you’ve learnt during your insomnia or marzipan. The energy you spent on chatting about your life is much easier spent just listening. And don’t be threatened by other people’s lives. If Joy loves skydiving and you hate that your role as a parent or wife is much more mundane, why not live a little through her, find out what it feels like, why she loves it, she’ll be over the moon to share her passion and in the same way that it’s lovely for a parent to share about their children (but sometimes is painful for the person hearing it), maybe you need to turn the tables and hear about their amazing life even if it’s a little painful for you.
Tip 3 - Include them, but in the right way
There are ways to get this right and wrong, and you’ll need to read the person to find out what works, or take them at their word if you ask them about it. Maybe when Joy arrives, just ask her (one-to-one, don’t do it across the table) what she likes, what would she really enjoy today and give her options, don’t leave it open ended she has no idea what’s on offer. ‘Do you like board games? Cooking? Playing with the kids? Quizzes?’ find out up front. Or even better maybe, message her beforehand so she can reply via text. What if she absolutely loves making table decorations and you’re stressing about yours? Let her be involved, or bring something, or be part of the day. If she's the only one that didn't contribute you might think you're gifting her a day off but she might actually want to feel needed.
And yes, I’ll just acknowledge there are some people who want one thing and say another, but I’m going to say that in this situation that’s on them to learn how to communicate better, if they tell you they love cooking and help you out but moan after they were in the kitchen, or they say yes to playing a game with the kids but hate it and just can’t say no, that’s not your problem to worry about, that’s their issue to work through.
So once you know what Joy might enjoy, find appropriate ways to include her and this might mean saving some things till she’s not there. Don’t play couples games if she’s single or the only one not there in a couple. Don’t pair up with your kids so she’s the only one playing alone. Don’t put her into a game where your kids cheat, win and gloat over it to her. If she doesn’t want to play a game maybe do that one another time. Maybe ask her one-to-one what games she likes so she isn’t forced into saying yes because you asked the whole room who you know love it and they all shout ‘yes!’ Don’t allow conversation to stray into long chats about motherhood or marriage or things she doesn’t have and can’t contribute to. Don’t all open your presents when she has nothing to do but watch. Don’t be all ‘family-like’ where you’re all cuddling children and she’s sat alone watching you do baby talk. These are all things that are very easily avoided if you just remember every so often to look at Joy and think ‘would I enjoy this if that was me?’ And maybe save her from conversation if she’s stuck with someone you know is boring or weird, don’t leave her there because it occupies said boring/weird person.
And just a few notes regarding having children in the gathering, there are a few things that those without children really find hard when trying to be part of a family gathering, especially at gift-giving gatherings, so it would be really helpful, parents, if you could not do the following:
If Joy gives you a present to open, don’t immediately give it to the children. It might be their favourite chocolate or a gadget their eyes light up at, but it’s hurtful when the first response from you is to let your kids take it away. It diminishes the effort that Joy went to to get it for you. If a child comes after it, maybe say ‘No, Joy bought this for me.’ Even if you give it to them later when Joy goes, it just shows you’re grateful and not dismissive of the thought and effort that went into it. And I have to say, it’s not just parents that are bad at this, grandparents you’re in there too with this one!
Teach your kids as early as possible how to politely appreciate presents, regardless of whether they like them or not. It is incredibly difficult to buy presents for children you don’t see at least weekly because they’re interests change so much. And yes, you can ask the parents what to get them, but do you know how depressing that is when you don’t have your own children? You just love the idea of getting a gift for a child that they love, off your own back, even better if it pleases the parents. However, when you really try and then you’re at a gathering where the child opens it in front of you, it’s horrible when they then throw it aside, saying ‘I don’t like it’ or ‘This isn’t what I wanted’ or a sad ‘Ohh.’ Ouch man, that stuff hurts. So my tip, if you have children that aren’t capable of doing this yet, is to not create situations where the children open gifts in front of that person. It says more about our society than anything that this is even a thing, I’m sure some cultures are shocked by this needing to be said at all.
Don’t give kids ultimatums in front of Joy that you know they might turn down. Don’t say ‘Do you want to give Joy a hug goodbye?’ when you know there’s a very high chance it’s a ‘no’ because the child doesn’t know her that well or doesn’t hug much. It’s not fun for Joy to be rejected like that. Maybe ask the child quietly and gauge reaction, then say ‘Joy, Noel would like to give you a hug goodbye’ or don’t do it at all, but be careful how often Joy is rejected by kids openly, it’s hard to take for some people.
Well, that’s my whirlwind tour of helping to include Joy this Christmas. There’s so much more I could elaborate on but I hope this helps give you an idea of seeing things from a perspective you might not have had to see from, which is a blessing in itself.
They’re not tips that are exclusive to those feeling on the outside of gatherings, they can be applied to anyone, I’m sure you’d like these to be applied to you in the next get-together, whatever your situation is.
Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can't help them, at least don't hurt them. Dalai Lama
It’s worth remembering that so often how we respond to others is a reflection of ourselves; our assumptions, our priorities, our previous hurts, our pains, our grief, our expectations, our flaws. So through changing how we treat others, we also learn about ourselves and change for the better. Every time something irks you, every time you feel defensive, every time you disagreed with something I suggested, there was a reason, a feeling, an assumption in you that was being poked or challenged and when we spot these and work out why they make us feel that way, we can start to learn more about ourselves and how we might need to change. And we know they’re personal because not everyone is upset or pained by them. All of us would take issue with having our eye plucked out right now without anaesthetic, but only some of us will feel pain when we see a child cuddle up to a parent or a couple hold hands. Whatever hurts you, also alerts you. Oo I just made that up! Maybe I’l make it all official and put proper quotemarks around it like I do all the other wisdomous people I quote. You’ll have to check the blog to see if I did, but I’ll definitely be putting that on a social media image!
Whatever hurts you, also alerts you. Claire Sandys
There’s a very challenging quote by Carl Jung that says:
Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves. Carl Jung
I’m wishing you all many happy gatherings, whether you’re the big family or the single human attending them. May we all continue to grow towards a society that accepts, loves and appreciates different lives for the beauty and excitement they can birth without comparisons and assumptions diluting our joy.
The bond that links your true family is not one of blood, but of respect and joy in each other's life. Richard Bach