Conflict is usually seen as negative or something to be avoided. There is even a myth that there is no place for conflict in a happy or “functional” family. However, the truth is that conflict exists, and it can be a healthy part of engaging with others. While poorly handled conflict can break ties, decrease trust, and damage communication, conflict handled in a healthy and constructive way can build up relationships and help connect us to one another. However, making sure conflict is productive as opposed to destructive requires intention, purposefulness, and time. So, how can we handle conflict in a constructive way? Consider the following points to aid in the successful management of family conflict.
1. Differences should be celebrated.
When someone doesn’t think, act, or believe in the same way we do, we often consider ourselves as being in the right, while the other(s) are in the wrong. But what if we set aside the concept of right and wrong? What if there is just different? Although we may easily get along with someone who is more like us, we need to recognize and celebrate the benefits of difference. Consider the instruments in an orchestra – each instrument looks different, sounds different, and has a different role to play in the musical score. However, when the instruments all play together, their unique sounds blend to create beautiful music. Take the time to listen to the opinions and views of others and worry less about defending your stance so you can celebrate the differences in your family. It can make for some beautiful music.
2. Communication is key.
Fear and anger – two of conflict’s best friends – live in the silence. They multiply in the absence of open and honest communication. When we are in conflict with someone, we often assume their intentions. However, intentions are hidden from view and can only truly be known if they are discussed, shared, and explored. Speaking openly, asking questions, and being vulnerable enough to talk about how we feel shines a light on the intentions of another. It allows for the development of a shared understanding, and removes the assumptions. Only then can a conflict move toward resolution. Keys to effective communication include honing our listening skills, using “I” statements, and resisting the urge to attack or defend. Practicing good communication consistently will often reduce the chances of conflict altogether.
3. Don’t get caught in the middle – the triangulation pitfall.
Triangulation is when a third party chooses a side in a conflict between two individuals – suddenly the disagreement between person A and B expands to include person C. If triangulation is left unchecked, it can lead to the entire family choosing sides. If you have a conflict with one person, address it with them directly (see the point above on communication) rather than seek the support of others. And if you are invited into a conflict that is not yours, respectfully decline to participate (and refer that person to the point above on communication). While it may feel good in the short term to gather allies if you are feeling wronged, it doesn’t support a healthy resolution to the conflict. Make sure conflict is dealt with directly to reduce the impact it can have on your family.
4. Have a plan before there is conflict.
Healthy families establish ground rules – these can be very explicit, created together, and posted in a place where they are visible to all. However, if you’d like to take a less formal approach, simply live according to specific guidelines, which may talk about how you treat one another such as, “We do not yell in this family.” They may also outline how you navigate differences: “Everyone has the right to their opinion.” Guidelines can also set expectations around roles and responsibilities (“We all share in the household chores and help one another out”), or consist of a plan for how to resolve conflicts when they arise (“Speak to one another, not about one another”). Respectfully holding one another accountable to the family rules fosters relationships, invites a shared sense of commitment, and makes navigating challenges easier when they arise.
Considering how unique we each are, and how rich and multi-layered the world is, conflict is nearly inevitable. We cannot help but have opinions and beliefs that differ from those of our own family members. However, disagreeing with one another does not have to lead to negative feelings or experiences. Practicing the tips above can help us navigate conflict, reach resolutions more quickly, and protect the relationships we value so much.
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