Set Ground Rules Ahead of Time

Some families never fight, but they also never talk to each other either. Other families fight until the police arrive to break it up. Somewhere in the middle of that is where you are as a parent when it comes to resolving conflict within your family.

Believe it or not, simple verbal tools are available that every family can use to help move conflict beyond impasse to a respectful conversation. There is a term in conflict management circles for this.  It is called “enlarging the conversation.” This simply means making space to move and allowing all invloved in a conflict to state their position respectfully.

Picture a boxing ring, where conflict is standardized.  Boxing has rules. It also requires fair play, an equality of weapons, and time to take a break and re-group. If you employ all these same conditions during a family conflict, you will achieve a resolution.

Set Some Rules

One of the best ways to enlarge conversations in a family is to set some standardized rules (just like they do in boxing) for how you will manage conflict before the conflict arises. This is called meta-communication. Most families muddle along without it, because we think about making rules for conflict the same way we think about making plans for a car accident. We think we’ll just deal with it if it happens. 

Marriages often begin with the completely false notion that conflict can be avoided. Conflict, especially a major one, won’t happen to us. We might also think: “As long as we’re not fighting right now, why talk about how we will fight when we do? What if this discussion starts a fight?” Good point. So, make some rules about that. Agree that you will discuss the topic in a friendly way, take a break and come back to it later if needed.

When children are young, conflicts with them can be handled more simply:

“Put on your shoes.”
“I don’t want to wear shoes.”
“You have to wear shoes.”

Then they get just a little older and autonomy kicks in when you aren’t looking. Suddenly the wearing of shoes becomes more than a disagreement, it becomes a battle. But, if you begin those early discussions by teaching rules of engagement it helps later to drive how conflicts will play out between you.

For instance, when the shoe issue comes up you can say:

“I’d like to understand why you don’t want to wear shoes.
Then I have to tell you why you need to wear shoes this time.”

There is usually an imbalance of power in parent-child relationships. You’re the parent, you have veto power, but that doesn’t mean that children cannot voice their thoughts and preferences. When they know their voices will be heard and their feelings will be acknowledged, they are much better at conceding a position for the good of the family. 

How to Plan For Conflict

The ideal time to discuss how a family will address conflict is now, so let’s begin. Here are some steps for developing a plan to “enlarge the conversation” when a conflict occurs within your family:

  • Develop a Schedule for Getting this DoneSet an undistracted time and place to mindfully discuss managing conflict for about an hour or two. You can even set up several shorter meetings based on specific subjects so that each meeting is focused.
  • Give It Some Thought/Write Some Things DownBeforehand and separately, meditate on and write a few notes about what you dislike in conflict, and what you need to assure yourself that the conflict is resolved. Some statements might be:

I need to be respected;
No ugly or insulting language;

We sometimes agree to respectfully disagree because we are different;
We kiss and give each other a hug at the end.

  • Time to Talk, Time to ListenOne of the first things to do when you meet is to set guidelines for both talking and listening during conflict (you can use this rule in your meetings). One good idea is to let the person most invested in being heard speak first. If there is an imbalance of power, the person who is perceived with less power speaks first.
  • Pre-determine Actions When an Impasse OccursAn impasse is when no one is willing to give up their position or to change their view of things. Impasses will happen. Discuss how an impasse might be solved and figure out a creative way how you will handle the impasse when it occurs. For example:

Agree to sleep on it;
Agree to flip a coin;
If I win this time, you win next time;
Take a short (or mybe longer) break and come back to the discussion; or
Determine what works for your family and agree on it now.

  • Balancing PowerDiscuss how you are going to balance power and give value to each person’s role in the family. If one partner goes to work and one partner raises children, there is power in both roles that must be acknowledged, encouraged, and respected. If an older sibling has more responsibility, she/he might also get a larger share of freedom or privacy or some other currency. Conversely, if everyone works outside the home, then discussion may revolve around dividing family roles fairly. 

Power and Currency

There is no question that power plays a part in all families. Therefore, it’s important to agree on who has power in which circumstances, why they will have that power, and how the use of that power will affect the whole team. A healthy family never has a dictator. All teams have leaders, and an effective team trusts each member to lead when necessary. So, this leadership role, when it comes to resolving family conflicts, should be passed around based on the facts and circumstances involved. If you don’t think of your family as a team, each with leadership responsibilites at various times, it will be increasingly difficult for you to EFFECTIVELY resolve conflicts when they arise.

A word of caution here...the person in a family who thinks she/he has the most power may feel no need to resolve conflicts fairly. Therefore, it’s very important to look at this realistically. A family is an interdependent system much like a body. Everyone in a family has both currency and value, just as every organ of the body has a purpose. To refuse to acknowledge the role of the stomach or to take care of the feet will, at some point, result in serious problems for the body. Granted, if every family member could just walk away, there wouldn’t be conflict. But, there wouldn’t be a family either. For the family system to work EFFECTIVELY everyone has to stay involved, not only in the good times, but during the times of conflict as well.

“Peace is not the absence of conflict. 
It is the ability to handle conflict by peaceful means.”
Ronald Reagan

Written by Heidi Densmore

Copyright 2014 / Good Choices Good Life, Inc. / All Rights Reserved

“Perfection does not exist. To understand this is the triumph of human intelligence; to expect it is the most dangerous kind of madness.” Alfred de Musset