The face of the young woman next to us on flight 815 was glowing as she told us she was heading home to spend the holidays with her family.  It was easy to imagine the same excited glow coming from my granddaughter as her Facebook postings tracked her eager wait for her mom and sister to arrive for the weekend.

The other side of family communicating surfaces just as often in hostile and defensive texts between siblings—“Why the hell are my ideas always ignored?” “Dial it down, diva; you’re not the center of the universe.”  “Screw you!”  And yesterday’s news reported on yet another murder-suicide of family members by a family member.

This is why families are the sharpest double edged swords in the cosmos.  Families are the places where we can feel most secure, most at home, most understood, most appreciated, most loved.  And, precisely because family relationships are so long-term and close, family communication can also wound us most hurtfully, even fatally.   Effective family communicators live with both eyes wide open to all of these possibilities.

This fact strikes closest to home between mid-December and early January as holidays in cultures around the world bring family members together.  Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, New Year, and even solstice celebrations focus so much on family that often the historical and liturgical meaning of these holidays take a back seat to the fact that they’re an opportunity to get families together.  Sentimental expectations set high standards, and family members are often hurt when the realities of bickering, unfulfilled commitments, overscheduling, overspending, drugs, and alcohol turn anticipated joy into pain.

Three moves can help you manage hurtful family dynamics.  The first is to take the double-edged sword metaphor seriously.  No family can consistently live up to its members’ highest expectations, and every family can still offer sanctuary, support, and love.  Look for the best, go out of your way to be positive, and above all, keep your expectations reasonable.

The second useful move is to start using the Wonderbar of family communication.  Stanley tool company makes a foot-long, flat steel pry bar that is described by its users as a “must-own,” “indispensible” “little miracle” tool that is “indestructible,” and “never lets me down.”  One end of the Wonderbar easily pries rusty nails out of concrete floors and the other removes shingles and raises subflooring or decking.  When you want to enhance interpersonal contacts in your family, you’ll need the communication equivalent of a Wonderbar, a tool to help you pry loose the entrenched interaction patterns that are creating problems, so you can actually experience new possibilities.

The Wonderbar of family communication is a looking and listening lens that empowers you to distinguish between the two parts of meaning in every family communication event:  the information part and the identity part.  These two parts of meaning make up every communication happening—not just in families.  But the two are especially difficult to see, and especially dangerous, in the communication you experience in your family.

Julia T. Wood (2000) contrasts the two:[1]


“It’s raining today.”

“I’m starting a new project at work.”


“I bought some of those berries you love when I went shopping today.”

“I heard a funny joke today. . . .”

“Could you believe the way Ed and Janet bickered at the party last night?”

“Do you want to rent a movie this weekend?”

“I’m thinking about cutting my hair.”

“You really should get back to your aerobics.”


I’m here.  Do you want to talk? [supporter]

I want you to be aware of what’s happening in my career. [partner]

I care about you.  I keep your preferences in mind. [best friend]

Please confirm that I am interesting.  Let’s enjoy a laugh together. [somewhat needy partner]

We’re not the kind of people who quarrel in public. [proud partner]

Let’s spend some fun time together [good friend]

Do you think my hair is attractive like it is?  Will you be upset of I cut my hair? [needy, wanting to please]

I care about your health. [supporter]


Another family communication expert calls the Information part “the word meaning” and the Identity part “the heart meaning—the meaning that we react to most strongly, that triggers emotion.”[2]  She uses the terms “word” and “heart” to emphasize how important it is to pay attention to both.  When Ed is cooking and his spouse Jenny laughs at the mess he’s made in the kitchen, Ed interprets Jenny’s laughter as derisive, even scornful.  Jenny might have intended just to make light work of her clean-up efforts, but he lumps her laugh together with all the other times he believes she’s ridiculed him.  The information meaning is amusement and the identity meaning is a “You’re a careless mess-maker.”  In order to clarify and improve communication between family members, first distinguish between these two meanings and then communicate about both.

“Communicate about both” is the third move.  The Wonderbar empowers you to pry Information and Identity messages apart so you can identify them and understand what each is saying.  Once you have the two different meanings identified, you can begin to talk about both of them.  Most often, it’s the Identity part that needs to be discussed.

Jenny needs to say that she wants to be an equal partner in Ed’s cooking, not just the clean-up person.  Ed needs to say that he wants his efforts in the kitchen to be appreciated more.  It takes some mindful reflection to identify what the identity messages are.  But only when these Identity parts are expressed, can they be addressed.  And when they are addressed, that communication will be about “heart meaning,” so, if it’s done with respect and caring, it’s likely to promote real personal contact.

So long as your family communication is going smoothly, just do your part to keep it that way.  But whenever you find yourself surprised, threatened, angered, disappointed, or fearful, use the communication Wonderbar to stop yourself and pry apart what you’re seeing and hearing.  In the silence, sort out the Information parts and the Identity parts.  Most of the time, the problem will be with the latter.  Then describe your interpretation of the Identity parts as dispassionately as you can.  “Ouch. That’s a strong criticism.”  “I thought we were talking about the heating bill and now it sounds like we’re talking about my ability to manage money.”  “I think I’m your equal in this, and it doesn’t sound like you believe I am.”  Next, proceed with care.  Conversation about Identity meaning can be challenging, because it’s hard not to get defensive.  But it can also be very rewarding.


[1] Wood, J.T. (2000).  Relational Communication:  Continuity and Change in Personal Relationships, 2nd ed.  Belmont, CA:  Wadsworth, p. 193.  Wood’s labels for the columns are “Everyday Talk” and “Relationship Level Meaning.”

[2] Tannen, D. (2012).  “Separating messages from metamessages in family talk,” I Only Say This Because I Love You.  New York:  Random House.  Excerpts from pp. 3-15 and 27-35 reprinted in Bridges Not Walls, 11th ed.  Ed. J. Stewart.  New York:  McGraw-Hill, p. 247.