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Conflict Resolution for Families

Guest Author - Erin Kelley-Soderholm, M.Ed.

As the holiday season kicks into high gear, so do plans to reunite with relatives. In How to Prevent Family Conflict, I outlined how to use mindful self-awareness to avoid conflict. Because good intentions and self-care aren’t always enough, here I offer ways to handle and repair conflict. I also urge you to consider new perspectives on old family roles and patterns to evaluate whether they still fit with your values and goals— or if it’s time for a change.

Okay, so you assembled your toolkit and implemented your peaceful plan. Nevertheless, you find yourself in the midst of an argument or upsetting situation... maybe even one you’ve replayed in your family for years. Now what?

Repair and Recover

  • Fight fair. If you must argue, don’t dredge up unrelated complaints and criticisms. Staying on topic is the only way to resolve the problem you’re having right now. Respectful communication— which means no name-calling and no insults— will help keep the issue from escalating. Positive outcomes are even more likely when you stay centered on listening, finding common ground, and expressing your own feelings and needs.

  • Take a breather. When you’re upset, your nervous system interferes with rationality. So when you need time alone to calm your nerves or vent to a friend, do it. Surprisingly, our bodies require up to twenty minutes to recover from the physiological components of agitation – and that can’t happen while you sit and stew. It’s more constructive to breathe deeply, take a walk, and replace negative thoughts with positive ones.

  • Depersonalize and empathize. While being the recipient of anger or criticism feels intensely personal, it actually reveals the insecurity and unmet needs of the aggressor. For example, nagging stems from fear and protective impulses; criticism from a sense of inferiority or powerlessness; and tantrums from a need for attention and control. See if you can detect the vulnerability that hides beneath the surface of offensive words and actions.

  • Check in with your values. When arguments concern past hurts, politics, religion, or personal values, there isn’t much potential for change of mind or heart. It’s up to you to examine the balance between self-respect and boundaries on the one hand, and the need to be “right” or to change someone else on the other. Ask yourself which is more important: proving your point of view? Or preserving your relationship?

Take the Long View

  • Let it go. Is there any chance that you can let this issue drop, even if someone else won’t? Clinging to blame or resentment blocks you from being present. Plus, it leaves you holding some heavy baggage. Apply a generous dose of open-minded acceptance to your respective idiosyncrasies and past mistakes. All relationships benefit from tolerance and forgiveness but not everyone has mastered these skills. It’s not about being saintly or a doormat. For your own growth and well-being, practice letting go of the burdens of expectations, judgment, and regret.

  • Learn. Even if you lose your cool, don’t punish yourself. Own your part in what happened, apologize if necessary, and forgive yourself and others. Consider this when you’re angry or hurt: will this matter one, five, or ten years from now? If so, what can you do for damage control or to prevent a recurrence? Extract whatever insight and wisdom you can, and try again. Perhaps you can even discover something valuable, some kernel of truth, in the someone else’s perspective or criticism.

  • Stay out of it, Part II. Family loyalty is nice, but it must be demonstrated in the form of mutual respect and caring. Despite your best efforts, the behavior of a family member (or members) may become intolerable. Take an honest look at your situation. Can you accept the way things are or not? If the environment feels more toxic than tonic, then avoidance may be the best way to protect yourself from further damage.

  • When all else fails, laugh it off. Appreciate the absurdity, pathos, and humor in others’ dysfunctional behaviors. When you view things from a detached perspective, the bickering and drama become less hurtful and more amusing. But be sure to laugh with, not at. And don’t take yourself too seriously.

The Choice Is Yours

Family change can take time, and sometimes it doesn’t happen at all. The important thing is to find your comfort zone. On a personal level, counseling or a support group can help you heal the wounds of the past and define your expectations for the future. On a family level, if you do not enjoy and benefit from time together, consider declining their next invitation.

You can’t choose your family, but you do have choices. You have the power to transcend old patterns and influence your life in the present. Let “flexibility, flow, and letting go” be your mantra as you endeavor to find a peaceful place in (or out of) your family. Here’s wishing you and your family a healthy, balanced holiday season.

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Content copyright © 2014 by Erin Kelley-Soderholm, M.Ed.. All rights reserved.
This content was written by Erin Kelley-Soderholm, M.Ed.. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Dr. Jonice Webb for details.

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