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Sibling Relationships: The Critical Role of Listening
by Dr. Dale V. Atkins, May 2014

Siblings share a unique connection, one that can lead to being best friends and/or to a lifetime of conflict and struggle. Adult sibling disputes are often a manifestation of unresolved childhood feelings about parental favoritism or jealousy which, if unaddressed, can limit the evolution of that special connection into something rich and satisfying.

When we think about our own family we can consider the various roles we and our siblings play. Sometimes these roles are assigned and sometimes we assign them to ourselves. Some examples are the "golden child" who can do no wrong, the athlete, the artist, the peacemaker, the responsible (or irresponsible) one, etc.

Thinking about the roles we played in our families, and the roles we continue to play can help us re-frame relationships and make them more meaningful.

We all have different interests and abilities so it makes sense that we would play different roles. When these roles become rigid, it is difficult for us and others to change them. A child may be given a label and never "allowed" to outgrow, challenge, or put it aside, even when their personality, life experience, or behavior contradict that label. If we insist on seeing another person only in terms of old experiences and the roles that person played in the past, we limit the potential of that relationship.

We all run the risk of staying too attached to labels without paying attention to myriad ways we and our siblings have changed over the years. When we have not spent much time with our siblings as adults, we risk missing who they have become. We can learn much of who they are now, what their experience was growing up in our family, and how they deal with life's challenges when we seek to understand their current interests and their concerns. We may be surprised at what we learn when we attempt to get to know them. We need to make a commitment to let go of our preconceived notions and listen to them thoughtfully.

If we want to nurture our relationship, even expand it, we can take the time to be an engaged listener. Most of us are not good listeners much of the time. We are often distracted -- by technology or thinking about a pressing matter. While we "hear" the words someone is saying to us we are really only paying partial attention. If we want to be fully present to our sibling, we need to focus on the nuances of the exchange before we respond to what he or she is saying. We need to avoid interrupting and let them finish their thought. This is especially difficult for sisters and brothers who often pride themselves on knowing what the other is thinking.

Communication styles influence perceptions. Because children often imitate the way their parents communicate, siblings are particularly primed to repeat family communication patterns. As adults, we can take the initiative to examine our own communication patterns and begin to change the way we relate to our siblings. When we do, there is a better chance of creating a new way of relating and hopefully, of nurturing our bond.

With an awareness of past roles and labels, and a willingness to pause and listen to our siblings with a desire to understand them, we can help minimize limitations in our relationships and move toward developing healthier, supportive, and meaningful sibling relationships.

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