One of my most memorable failures as a father had to do with a situation in which I failed to manage a critical conflict effectively. My “tween-aged” son was throwing a major tantrum one morning before school. His mom, who usually managed the before school routine, was out of town and I was trying to get the kids off to school before I had to go to work. My son was not in a mood to cooperate, so I left him at home while I got the other kids to school and I came back to get him.
I found him in the back yard on a very high branch of a very tall tree in our yard. He was not coming down to go to school and I knew there was no way I could go up to get him.
Impasse! He wasn’t budging and I wasn’t in the mood for a conflict. I was late for work and he was late for school. I wish I had put aside the scheduling concerns, but I didn’t, and it took a combination of talking, threatening, and bribing before I got him out of the tree, in the car and on the way to school.
Managing conflict at home is one of the biggest issues we often face in our families. Whether it stems from conflicting views about spending with a tight family budget, attitudes toward family rules and self-discipline, or simply the need to resolve a scheduling challenge, addressing conflict effectively is something every family needs to handle.
These seven skills that have been identified by fathers and mothers who seem to have this figured out and can help any father (or mother for that matter) think more holistically about conflicts at home and how to best manage them for positive outcomes.
Self-Awareness. Often in situations where conflict arises in a family, we get so wrapped up in the issues that we forget to consider our own feelings and motivations. In the situation with my son in the tree, I should have been more aware of my rising anger, my more rapid breathing, and my sense of powerlessness.
Had I been more aware of what was going on, I probably could have stopped, taken a deep breath, and made sure that I was responding from my best self. Knowing what we are feeling and why we feel that way can help defuse a tense situation.
I-Messages. Often when conflict erupts at home, we respond by placing responsibility for the issues on another family member. “You make me so mad,” we might say. Or, “Why do you always have to break our family rules?” But in an emotionally charged moment, it really helps to communicate more effectively by sending “I-Messages.” Turn the statement around to explain your point of view, starting with the word “I.” For example, you might say, “I feel like I can’t keep my commitments when all of us can’t cooperate to get ready for school.” Or, “I feel it isn’t fair for all the other kids to do their chores when you don’t and there is no consequence.” Turning the message into an I-message takes some of the pressure off and allows the person creating the conflict to see things from another perspective, rather than becoming more defensive.
Appropriate humor. Sometimes the tension can get broken with a little appropriate humor. In the situation with my son, I wonder if it would have helped to say something like, “I am going to throw a rope up to you. If you put it over the branch next to you and lower it down, I will hook your bike up to it and get it up into the tree so that you can ride it to school.” My son probably would have laughed instead of yelling and we might have broken the stress sooner. But the humor has to be appropriate. You can’t joke at another person’s expense and expect them to respond in a positive way.
Specific, not general. In a conflict at home, we sometimes go to the general. “Why are you always so difficult?” is a question my mom often asked when I was a child. That never helped, because I knew I wasn’t always so difficult – just when I wanted to be. If we can leave out the “never” and the “always” from conversations in times of stress, we can enhance our communication. Being more specific about the situation and our specific needs can help find solutions.
Compromise. One of the challenges of a family conflict is that the parties can become polarized. Each feels that there is only one right outcome, and it is the one that person wants. It is a win-lose proposition – if one person wins, that must mean that I lose. But the truth is that this is seldom the case. There is almost always room for compromise. Recently, we were with two of our granddaughters on a trip, and they had polar opposite choices when we asked their opinion on something. So we talked about what was important to each of them and found an alternative activity that gave each of them something that was important to them.
Choose the right environment. Conflict can be less manageable when we choose the wrong environment for the conflict. Talking to my son high up in the tree wasn’t good for either of us, and it would have been better to come inside, have a cinnamon roll at the table and talk about the conflict. And sometimes just going to neutral territory can have a positive impact on the outcome of the conflict.
Listen for intent, not just words. Frequently, conflicts arise from miscommunication. Sometimes we assume that we know the intent of a person when we may just be ascribing intent to them rather than understanding it. In the communication skill called active listening, we work to more fully understand intent and motivation, and not just message. We watch for body language cues, and we reflect back to the communicator what we thought they were trying to say to us. Communicating for intent, not just content, is often a significant move toward effective conflict resolution.
Becoming better at conflict resolution at home is an important component of successful parenting. Mastering a few key skills can make all the difference and help us strengthen families and live in greater peace in our families.