So often, I counsel families and the number one problem is that families do not know how to constructively work through disagreements with each other. So often, what starts out as a small issues becomes an all out battle among different family members. “Emotional baggage” (the things that happened awhile ago but is unresolved) is brought up during these conversations. Family members lose their temper. People shut down or talk over each other. Issues are simply not solved. Now the latest argument becomes just another example of the family’s inability to work through situations and will most likely be brought up in the next conflict.
So often, family conflict seems hopeless. It feels like nothing will ever be worked out. However, with a few simple rules, families can begin the process of healing and working through these issues.
1) Figure out what the actual problems is.
Start by taking a breath and having each family member ask themselves what they are actually upset about. Is it that the laundry was left in the washing machine once again or is it that there is an uneven share of housework? Once this has been decided, agree and stick to one topic at a time. Often, unrelated issues get brought up during an argument as a way to distract from the issue at hand. By agreeing on the issue and sticking to that subject, actual work can be done.
2) Stay calm and respectful of others.
Every member of the family needs to agree ahead of the argument to stay as calm and respectful as possible. This includes not using degrading language (including swearing at each other, blaming each other for the issue), not yelling at each other and taking turns talking and most important, listening to each other.
In order to accomplish this, I advise my client to use a method where the family members have a totem (I enjoy using a piece of tile that was received free at the local hardware store in order to indicate who “has the floor.”). The family members take turns holding the totem and discussing their side of the argument with a maximum of 30 seconds to express themselves. The next step is to give the other family member the totem and they must first summarize what was just said then have 30 more seconds to express their point of view. If this is sounding a little like the rules of a Presidential debate, well, it is. The rules are in place in order to allow that each family member can express themselves and feel heard. This also clears up misunderstandings that can occur. People will come to the conversation with their own view and this often brings misunderstanding to the conversation. People hear what they want to hear.
If things get too heated, don’t simply walk away from the conversation. Stonewalling (or the practice of not listening or responding-simply shutting down and no longer participating) can be a major culprit of conflict that remains unsolved or chronic. If things reach a point, take a break, a time-out. We understand that the rules won’t be followed 100% of the time, so taking a break can be helpful. When doing this, it is very important to set a time to come back to the conversation and follow-through with his time. The time-out can be 10 minutes, 30 minutes or even a day if needed. As long as you come back and continue the conversation that is all that matters.
3) Express the feelings and needs of yourself.
One of my favorite ways to express this is by using “I-statements”.
“I feel Insert feeling word, when you Insert specific behavior and I need _________.”
Using this formula, allows the listener not to feel blamed and allows people to to express what is actually going on and what they need.
For example: “I feel angry when you don’t switch the laundry to the dryer after I’ve asked you to do so. I need for you to switch the laundry when told.”
Using this formula and rules, each family member will come with a compromise or an understanding of each other’s feelings and desires. Sometimes, there isn’t a perfect answer or compromise to be made. However, if each family member feels heard then this can help with the long term-goals of improved communication.
While these practical rules for arguing seem pretty straight forward, I can promise from experience with families that I’ve worked with that these can be very difficult to adhere to. My suggestion is to print out the rules and have them readily available to show while in the conversation. I also suggest that family members needs to have grace for one another when learning these techniques. No one will ever be able to adhere to the rules 100% of the time and learning them is difficult. Having grace for family members will help not only to improve family communication, but will help the family members eventually come to a compromise or understanding. Keep trying. These techniques work. It just takes time to learn them.
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