Learn how to effectively resolve family conflicts. While disagreements are part and parcel of everyday life, when family members misunderstand each other, or become rather too heated and emotional about a particular topic, then the disagreements can become major issues. If those disagreements continue over time then the structures holding the family together can start to wobble, and the atmosphere can feel stressed and difficult.
Top causes of family conflict
Finances are top of the list for causing conflict within families. Money, or lack of it, can cause everyday stress as families struggle to make ends meet. If someone is unemployed, that puts even greater strain on the family purse. Other family conflicts can arise when someone lends another family member some money and there’s no plan for repayment. Some of the worst rows and rifts can occur when a parent dies and the children and other beneficiaries squabble over the will. In our work as therapists, we’ve heard about families being torn apart because of misunderstandings over who will inherit what, and how the Estate is shared out.
Who’s getting too much attention and who isn’t getting enough is another major source of family disputes. Siblings rival for their parents’ attention, no matter what age they are, and can feel put out if their brother or sister is seemingly favored or prioritized. Adult children can feel hurt when their parents are too busy or too stressed to contact them often enough. Lack of attention can come in all different forms. What about the family member who’s left off the list of wedding invitations, isn’t included in Grandma’s 80th birthday celebrations, or isn’t invited to the baptism of a new baby? These oversights can feel like a huge slight that can wound and scar.
Blood is thicker than water, so the saying goes. Expectations are also higher of family members. A parent may expect his child to grow up just like him and follow in his career footsteps. A sibling may expect more effort to be made by brothers and sisters for a big birthday coming up. An aunt would really love her busy nephews to visit more often. Expectations run higher just because they’re family.
Relationships with in-laws can be tricky. It’s a topic that often brings people into therapy, when they just can’t get on with the other side of the family. They tend to be at one end of a scale: either too intrusive and interfering, or seemingly distant and uncaring. Either way, these relationships can be a huge source of conflict.
Defining What You Can Control and What You Can’t
How often have you had an experience where you knew you were going to see your family and could predict in advance what annoying or frustrating interactions you might have with certain family members, and things went exactly as you’d hoped they wouldn’t? Have you ever wished you had a remote control for humans, complete with pause, rewind and mute buttons? While you can’t control the actions of others, you can control your response to their actions, which can alter the whole dynamic and create more positive interactions.
In fact, Dr. Kathleen Kelley Reardon, professor and author of Comebacks at Work: Using Conversation to Master Confrontation, estimates that 75% of how people treat us is under our control because of this. She advocates taking a different approach if you want to experience new, more positive results with these types of conflicts in the future.
“Communication is like chess where every move one person makes influences the choices of the other,” says Reardon. “A good rule of thumb is to not say what you would normally say in response to any provocation. When you usually meet a challenge with a challenge, try asking a question instead. If you let someone go on and on and that leads to anger, link something you have to say to his or her topic and then change to another one.
If you believe you’re being blamed for something, instead of getting your back up, try saying, “There’s some truth to that” or “I hadn’t thought of it that way but I see your point.” In other words, tweak what you normally do. Then you won’t just slip into conflict. Above all, don’t be predictable. When we’re predictable, those who want to argue can maneuver us into doing just that.”
The Role of Patterns
This solution is based on the observation that many of our conflicts with people we know well are based on repeated patterns that we unwittingly perpetuate. We may try to be proactive about responding in a way that will resolve the conflict each time (though let’s face it, many of us are more focused on “winning” the argument rather than on dissolving or resolving the conflict, and there’s often a difference). This response could actually serve to keep things going the way they have in the past, which may not be what we want.
“All families and most friends bring with them emotional baggage from the past,” explains Reardon. “In Comebacks at Work we describe how this leads to URPS (unwanted repetitive episodes) in conversation. Most of us slip into these dysfunctional and stressful patterns without even noticing because we’ve been in them so many times before.
“Some of the common URPS involve sibling rivalry issues, patterns with parents that have never gone away, political issues even in families where everyone identifies with the same political party, and who is more right about topics that aren’t really important.”
Simple Changes for Better Results
According to Reardon, the key to getting out of these URPS situations is to recognize “choice points” in a conversation, or points in the discourse where you can alter the tone and direction that the exchange takes, by altering your own responses. She gives the following scenario as an example:
John: That’s a stupid idea.
Marry: What makes you a genius?
John: I’m not a genius but I know when something is ridiculous.
Marry: You’re ridiculous.
“After John said, “That’s a stupid idea,” Marry was at a choice point, explains Reardon. “She reacted in the way many people would. But, she could have altered this conversation.” Here’s how that might look:
John: “That’s a stupid idea.”
Marry: “At first, I thought so too. But hear me out.”
Or Marry might have said: “New ideas tend to sound stupid, but you’ll see in a minute why this one isn’t.”
“Instead of reacting to John with an attack, she chose to bypass that option,” Reardon points out. “Instead, she allowed that he may have a point but he’ll think differently when she finishes speaking.
“This is responding rather than reacting,” she says. “It gives the other person a chance to rethink whether he or she wants to argue. It’s a gift of sorts to be accepted or not – the other person’s choice point. Most people respond to such generosity in conversation with returned generosity.”
Tips How to Resolve Family Conflicts
If you’re anticipating family conflict the next time you get together with certain people, you may want to think about things ahead of time and identify patterns you’ve experienced before, think about potential choice points, and consider alternative responses you may choose.
Agree to negotiate
Decide whether the issue is worth resolving, and is your relationship worth fighting for. If so, then agree to sit around a table and work it out.
Check your mindset
Are you coming into negotiations with the aim of proving your point and winning the argument? Or do you genuinely want to achieve a peaceful resolution. Check in with yourself. The first will take you nowhere, other than to the moral high ground. The second might give your family relationships a chance to repair.
Cool down first
Don’t come into a negotiation with your anger raging. That will just make you emotional and hot-headed. Take time to cool down so you can bring a more open mind and heart to the table.
Don’t sit there with your retort ticking away, ready to jump in to force your side of the argument. Listen to the other points of view being shared. You don’t have to agree with everything they say. You can agree to some parts and not the others. A powerful tool after someone has spoken is to say: “So what I hear you saying is this. Have I understood?” The other person will feel heard and perhaps become a little less prickly.
How you structure what you say can make a big difference. Don’t say: “You make me feel useless/unhappy/angry.” That can inflame the other person. If you instead say: “When you do that I feel upset” it puts the onus on you and your feelings without any inherent blame on the other.
Seek outside support
if you feel emotionally bruised by the whole family experience then you may want to talk things through with a counsellor at Family First Counseling Center to process what’s happened and to build your emotional resilience.