For many, the greatest family and parenting challenges lie in navigating conflict. It’s especially exhausting because most people are conflict adverse. But what if we embraced conflict as a healthy part of family life?
We tend to think about family conflict as a negative but, frankly, conflict has many positive side effects. It is natural for parents to disagree about parenting – it is the beauty of a two (or more) parent system. There is value in seeing more rather than fewer options for raising a child.
Children are supposed to disagree with their parents and see the world differently. It is how they grow. Conflict between parents and children is inevitable, and we should look to embrace it rather than avoid it.
If we assume conflict is necessary and healthy, how do we manage it productively? The answer lies in effective communication. How we listen and talk in the midst of conflict is the essence of healthy parenting. Victor Frankl, an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist as well as a Holocaust survivor, put it this way: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
Now, more than ever, we need to be reminded to pause before reacting to things that provoke us, so that we can chose wisely how to respond.
In order to choose a wise response, you need to be in touch with your own feelings and the root of them. Then, you should seek to understand the same from person you are debating. Try to understand how and why others feel the way they do. This is where the balance of listening and talking come into play.
Once everyone’s feelings and interests are heard, you can seek out common ground and shared interests. Be bold in offering and considering suggestions to reach an understanding. Don’t assume that you know how the other person will react – even if they have a lengthy track record for certain behaviors. Change is always possible. Try ideas for a while and see if they work. Even if a resolution doesn’t happen or doesn’t work, the act of being heard and sharing will have a positive impact on your family.
The best approaches to embracing conflict are:
1. Leave the past in the past. It is important to learn from the past, but not allow it to control the future. Remember that no one is entirely right or wrong. We are not the sum of our best or worst moments. What is in the past is best kept there. Focus on the future and how new behaviors going forward will foster family.
2. Focus on the problem. It is always best to separate problems from people. Focusing on the person leaves everyone feeling hurt or stuck. Nothing is gained by criticizing a person, but a lot can be gained by being critical of their behaviors. So, instead of personalizing an issue through criticism (my son is a slob or my daughter is inconsiderate), focus on the problem (I want my son to make his bed every day or I want my daughter to be on time for school).
3. Be a conflict detective. Try to be creative and crafty in your approach to conflict. Look for underlying needs and interests. When you don’t understand, ask questions rather than making assumptions. For example, why do your kids want to stay out past curfew? Do they want more freedom? More time with friends? You can work to fill these needs and still keep a curfew. Try to keep your questions open-ended. Rather than asking, “Why can’t you get home on time?” ask, “How can we figure out a curfew that works for everyone?”
4. Seek common ground. Try to find solutions that leave all family members feeling victorious, or that at least meet shades of everyone’s needs. Having one winner and one loser is not fun. With a shared goal, your family is more likely to work together. For example, everyone probably wants to create happy memories together, though you each have different opinions about how to do that.
Embracing conflict as a positive agent for growth – and learning to manage it productively – erases the stigma of strife and frees us to create something beautiful.
Elizabeth Esrey is a private mediator and owner of Esrey Mediation, LLC, working with families, businesses and communities who want to resolve conflict peacefully, privately and effectively through collaboration. Learn more at www.esreymediation.com.