Conflict. It’s something that we all face sometime in our lives whether we want to or not, whether we feel comfortable with it or not. Conflict can be seen between friends, co-workers, spouses, and siblings, among other relationships. It can be subtle, it can be direct, it can even be downright nasty. Conflict is a very common presenting problem that leads people to seek out help and support via therapy, which means there is hope!
When working with conflict in the therapy room, especially with families, I tend to use an analogy of a spider’s web. I explain that everyone in the family is connected to each other in some way, for the good, the bad, and the other. What this means is that a family system is complex. Conflict impacts everyone, no matter how it was created or is sustained. Therefore, change does not occur through blame, finger pointing, and one person being the sole lead. Change occurs when everyone (for the most part, and with the exception of young children) takes responsibility for their own actions and makes a conscious effort to do something differently.
Here are some basic guidelines to decrease or manage conflict in your family. Let me add a quick caveat here. The goal is not to eliminate conflict completely from our lives. That would be an impossible task. The goal is to practice skills in order to move through conflict in a healthy and effective manner within our relationships with others.
1. When conflict has shown itself, I recommend that people practice emotion regulation skills such as deep breathing. This allows you to be in control of your own system and allows your brain to remain calm as much as possible. A calm brain equals an increase in ability to think properly and avoid saying things you might regret.
2. Actively listen to the person talking in order to understand, not in order to respond. Give them eye contact, and repeat back what you heard them say.
3. Provide validation of feelings! This is not the time to tell the other person that their anger, sadness, hurt, etc. does not matter or is irrational. All feelings are allowed and we all need validation.
4. Do not “hit below the belt.” I will repeat, all feelings are allowed in conflicts, however it is not appropriate to name call, intimidate, threaten, or harm others verbally, emotionally, or physically. If these dynamics are present, there might be a more serious issue going on.
5. If you are a family with young children, make a ‘family rules poster’ or a talking stick. These tools can help children to stay aware of and practice their skills in a fun way. They can also help children cheer each other on to make healthier choices.
6. When you want to handle conflict with someone, I recommend you do so directly. Involving others, unless it is absolutely essential, can increase conflict in the family and therefore does not lead to resolution.
7. Take ownership for your role in the conflict. As much as we want to, we cannot control other people’s behaviors. We can only control our own, therefore we need to own them and work towards changing them.
8. Finally, apologize! Repair is incredibly important after conflict. Repair allows us to lean into our vulnerabilities, reconnect with the other person, and hopefully move forward in a healthier relationship.
Conflict is not ideal, however it is inevitable. Practice following the above guidelines, and if they do not help, consider giving us a call. A mental health professional will be able to properly assess for possibly deeper issues that are causing the conflict.
*Please note, abusive behaviors are not the same as conflict that I am referring to here in this post. If you or someone you know is experiencing abuse, contact your local authorities or crisis hotline if you feel safe to do so.
Written by Candace Hanson, MA, LMFT
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