Genuinely Resolving Family Conflict

8 July, 2018

With families taking time away from school and work and spending more time together during the school holidays, there’s bound to be an increase in ‘conflict’.  How can you handle it differently this time?

It could be squabbles between siblings.  It could be arguments between the parents, either in front or not in front of the kids.  It could be disagreements between parent and child.  Family conflict can also include the grandparents, aunts and uncles, or even close friends.

And when I talk about ‘conflict’ I’m not only talking about the very worst kind when people are crying uncontrollably or screaming and shouting at one another, or even hitting each other.  Of course it can include all of that, and sometimes more!  When I talk about conflict within families I’m also including the stuff that starts on the more subtle end of the spectrum: repetitive and predictable patterns of siblings trying to wind each other up; parents disagreeing on what to do for the day; the blaming of each other for not leaving the house on time; judgemental comments like: ‘you ALWAYS do this’ or ‘can’t you just be like XYZ for once?’; tension arising due to one parent perceiving they carry more of the domestic load; financial pressures that end in arguments; parents losing their tempers because their own tank is empty; kids feeling excluded or left out.

It can be just these subtle tensions playing out, and, they can also build into full anger volcanos.  It’s all within the spectrum of what we call conflict.

When conflict is going on, there are always one or more of these underlying assumptions just sitting there underneath it all.  To name few key ones:  
  • There’s one person to blame
  • There’s a right and a wrong - usually I am right and they are wrong
  • There’s a ‘good’ guy and a ‘bad’ guy - so let’s find the bad guy
  • There’s going to be a winner and a loser at the end of this
  • That other person CAUSED my bad feelings (i.e. anger, anxiety etc.)
  • If only that other person could change then I would feel better
  • That person can’t have a strong emotion because it upsets ME
As seductive as it is to believe any of these assumptions - let’s face it, how good does righteous indignation feel?! - they are ALL a fallacy.  And believing that one or more of these assumptions is true and acting from that place, is absolutely correlated with NOT resolving the conflict.   Put another way, if we believe and act from a place of ANY of these assumptions, your conflict won’t be solved, and will just manifest again at a different place and time.

I’ve had many opportunities in my life - as most people have - to work at truly resolving conflicts in my own relationships.  I’ve worked hard at this, and I’ve engaged in therapy during certain periods of my life to save particular relationships.  I’m also a coach of others, and trained in a model that I find fundamentally useful in my own life and for the lives of my clients:  Transformation Communication by Dr Richard Bolstad.  The specific part of the TC model that I teach the most often is the Problem Ownership Model. I don't use that many models, belive me, but this is certianly one that I do.

And this is the moment when most of my clients will start to smile to themselves.

I’ve lost count of how many people I’ve taught this to over the years.  It’s an absolute game changer when it comes to understanding conflict and learning how to truly - not just on a surface level, but truly - and fundamentally resolve conflicts that exist in relationships.  As the name implies, it teaches us the important lines between ourselves and others, and an understanding in any given situation about who is NOT OK, and who IS OK.  Once we understand these boundaries we can make a choice about which communication skills to draw upon as is appropriate to the situation.

The thing I LOVE about Problem Ownership is that it blows all of those unhelpful assumptions out of the water.  We learn to take 100% responsibility for what we feel and how we think, interpret and act, and therefore what we are personally brining to that particular conflict.  We understand that not a single person on the planet can literally MAKE you feel anything.  Sure, they can press your buttons and trigger you, but ultimately the feelings you experience in your own body are yours, and yours to acknowledge and process.  In this spirit, we learn to take proper care of ourselves and how we feel. 

This does not mean that the people around you doing shitty things to you is OK and that you need to put up with it.  No.  It also importantly teaches us how to communicate to another person when we need a behaviour of theirs to change, because it impacts negatively on us.  And how to do so in such a way that ditches the blame game, and preserves their self-esteem and the relationship itself.

Of course, it’s very hard, because righteous indignation feels so seductively good!  And so does blaming others and being the ‘winner’.

However, these concepts may feel temporarily good, but ONLY temporarily because they are not who we really are or who we want to be.  They simply only serve to try and protect our own delicate self-esteem and self-worth: i.e. if they’re the bad guy then I must be OK.

When we can look after our self-esteem and self-worth in more genuine and robust ways, and take 100% responsibility for what we bring to the conflict, being able to be humble and apologise - when that’s appropriate - becomes easy.  Because it’s only about a behaviour you did, not WHO you are as a person.  And when both of you can do that genuinely - well - that’s where the magic is in conflict resolution! 

Over the next few weeks of the school holidays, when you notice subtle or obvious conflicts occurring, think back to these unhelpfyl assumptions and see how many you can reverse.  Ask yourself - is it true that one person is to blame here?  Is it true that that person MADE me angry - did they press an anger button inside my head?  And when resolving a conflict see if you can have the courage - for ti does take courage - to OWN your part.  It is HARD work.  It is also HUMBLING.  It will also PRESERVE the relationship.  And it is also WORTH IT.

Imagine hearing your children owning their own stuff and apologising - genuinely, not because they’ve been forced to - for their part in an argument?  That’s a proud parenting moment that YOU modelled.  

I’d love to hear how you get on.  Drop me a line and tell me.

Charlotte x

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