Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Dismaying Story #10: The Personality Wars

Dear Andrew,

I don't have the nicest *cough* *cough* or healthiest relationship with my sister. We clash a lot since our personalities are so different. (She's a very stubborn and 'my-way-or-the-highway' sort of person while I'm more easygoing and relaxed.) What can I do to make the relationship less, well, clashing?

Signed, Sibling Rival

Dear Sibling,

I love your last sentence. Too often when people tell me about their issues, they point to external factors as the cause of their problems. The underlying message is , "It's not my fault and there's nothing I can do about it. It's all because of something outside my control." You didn't do that. You asked, "What can I do?" This indicates a willingness on your part to step up and take charge of your life, to do whatever you can to make things work. Such a mature attitude is a great way to start.

You undoubtedly have more control than you realize over how you get along with your sister. You are, after all, half of the relationship. When you're dealing with her, she acts in a certain way, you react, then she reacts to what you have just done. In other words, you have just influenced her behavior. So your first step is to realize this isn't just about how your sister behaves -- your own behavior is roughly half of the story. Don't feel bad about that; this is really good news for you because you can't control what your sister does. You can influence it but you can't control it. You do, however, have complete control over what you do. This means you have the power to change the dynamic between the two of you.

You say your personalities are different. Consider this. Do you think, anywhere in the world, there might be a married couple or a pair of friends or even two sisters who share the same mix of personalities as you and your sister ... and yet these two people get along without clashing? I'm sure there are people like that, plenty of them. That means your personalities don't doom the two of you to be rivals. You can keep your basic personality types and still find ways to get along just fine. It might be more challenging with some types of personalities, but it can be done; lots of people do it.

I have been in situations that were remarkably similar to yours. I once had a work colleague that I just couldn't seem to get along with. I'm a bit like you, more laid back, while this guy was aggressive and brusque. He would say nasty things and make snap decisions that were difficult for me to understand. To be honest, I found myself getting angry with him. Then one day I had a revelation. I asked myself, what if this guy is intimidated by me? I turned the situation around in my mind and started wondering what our relationship was like from his point of view. This made all the difference. I became deferential and polite. I started asking more and telling less. Wherever possible I told him I had faith in his ability and judgment, and asked him how he thought we should proceed. The change in him was rapid and remarkable. You could almost see his protective walls falling away. Not only did we start to work together effectively, we soon became good friends.

So ask yourself this: What do you think it is like for your sister to interact with you? What is the experience like from her point of view? In particular, what is her perception of your opinion of her? In your question you refer to her as a stubborn person. Have you made it clear to her that you think of her that way? Do you give off other similar messages that are less than flattering? Even though you think of yourself as easygoing, do you sometimes bristle and snarl when talking with her? I'm not expressing any judgment here, simply offering ideas for you to consider.

If your sister is lashing out with negative emotion toward you, there is a good chance she is doing so in reaction to some challenge she perceives from you. It doesn't matter if that perception is accurate, only that this is her experience. If her perception continues, so will her behavior. So your goal should be to provide her with a different message. Here are some things you might try:
  • Find ways to compliment her. Catch her being good and tell her how great she is.
  • Watch your body language when you're around her. Think of yourself as physically relaxing away from her. This can give off a non-threatening message.
  • Be careful not to give the message that you have a negative opinion of her. This might be difficult if the two of you have gotten into this habit, but by being conscious of the issue I bet you'll be able to handle it.
  • Apologize for making her feel bad. It doesn't matter whether you think you're responsible for making her feel that way. Her experience has been negative and the apology will be welcome. So be the hero who breaks the ice and apologizes first, even if she isn't ready or able to respond the same way.
  • Give her some time to react. Don't expect her behavior to change instantly. Keep going with your "be nice" program and have faith it will make a difference in the long run.

Again, I am impressed with you for posing the question as you did. Your willingness to take responsibility should help tremendously. Best of luck.


Do you remember what is was like in school when you had a question but were embarrassed to raise your hand and ask it? ...and then you were grateful when you got the answer because someone else asked it? Now you can be that someone. Many other people are struggling with the same relationship challenges as you. Be the one who gets the discussion rolling. Send in your question by email or enter a comment using the link below.


  1. You're dead on. I had an antagonistic relationship with my older sister when we were growing up. We get along fine now, but a few weeks ago while on vacation my mother brought it up (Note that everyone was into their third margarita and my mom was losing horribly at poker. I'm pretty sure she was using it as a ruse to distract us.).

    My older sister became defensive and said it was because I was always putting her down by saying that cheerleading was stupid, etc. She'd seemed so confident and untouchable when I was younger that I hadn't realized how much I was hurting her feelings. Plus I felt pretty defensive myself because it seemed like she was always making fun of me who at the time was reveling in a proficient amount of math-team related nerd glory. I was glad it all came out so that I could tell her I was just jealous and hadn't really meant it.

    Even though we get along fine now, I'd always felt a little like we walk on egg shells around each other, but after apologizing it seemed like some of the awkwardness that's so inherent to our relationship eased up.

  2. Are you suggesting that margaritas should be a mandatory prelude to such family discussions? :o) Seriously, good for you and your sister for having the honesty to put the truth out on the table and clear up some unfinished business. Hopefully it will only improve your relationship.