At the end of April, I had the opportunity to do something new: a sibling counseling workshop. The groom from a past counseling couple reached out and told me that he and his sisters were starting an annual sibling retreat weekend. Their mother suggested they not only spend quality time together, but also meet with a counselor to help them strengthen their relationships. How cool is that?
I work with intimate relationships every day. When I guide pre-marital couples in individual sessions or workshops, emphasis is on:
A. understanding their separate pasts
B. celebrating their differences and similarities, and
C. creating a shared path into the future
For siblings it’s the opposite. The difference with siblings is that they have a shared PAST. Sure, the experiences may vary depending on where they are in the birth order, and their personal interests. But with brothers and sisters there is a shared history. Luckily, these three siblings already had a good relationship; however, they live in 3 different cities and are 3 very different people. So, it made the most sense to me to:
A. celebrate their individuality
B. dig deeper into their childhood experiences, and then
C. find connection as they continue to grow and mature as adults
I always start all counseling sessions with a conversation on open and intentional communication. I also provide a format to do it. Using the structure of Nonviolent Communication (as developed by Marshall Rosenberg) we do our best to be as clear and compassionate in our verbal exchanges. So for the sibling counseling session, I began there. As there was already a vocabulary the siblings shared, they were able to dive in and get pretty vulnerable right away. There were desires expressed, there was fierce care and there was release through tears all in the first 30 minutes!
I have led communication workshops before, but this was different: it was not just about communication. The conversation needed to be richer. I looked through my pre-marital counseling curriculum to see what aspects can be used in all relationships, but especially with siblings. Besides communication, I decided to include discussion around family relationships and decision making.
The amazing thing is, I can set up clear structure, but I really never know where the conversation will go. I created the space for these siblings to talk about childhood wounds, how they want to celebrate major holidays, and the decisions around elder care for their parents. However, the dynamics of the roles in their relationship took over. I was not planning on discussing roles in the relationship, but it happened organically. The siblings soon began to challenge and question each other on their own. In those moments, I was able to witness the negotiation, encourage them to dig deeper, and move them to the next topic when they were ready.
To conclude, it was important to create action steps moving forward and reinforce positivity. We can take the time to talk through challenges and desires, but if there was no plan for action, then the siblings could have easily returned home and done nothing. So, I asked them each for tasks they wanted to accomplish and milestones they wanted to create. And better yet, I also offered to hold them accountable.
A week after the session, I reached out to the siblings to see if they each accomplished what they wanted to do. I also wanted to make sure were on track to tackle their larger goal of connecting over FaceTime on a regular basis. The great news is for the most part, there was progress made, but also new feelings emerged and were shared. I made sure to copy them all on the email, so they could work together to support and encourage each other, as they continued to strengthen their relationship.