Resolve Family Conflicts and Relieve Stress

Two people in conflict with backs to each other on a bench

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When families get together, we hope for fun times characterized by love and bonding, but we often find that family conflicts occur during these times as well. In fact, in most families, there are longstanding patterns of interaction and roles that people traditionally play within these interactions. When adult children get together with family, they often find themselves slipping back into these patterns, something laughingly referred to as "revertigo."

These interactions can be positive, but when they’re negative, they can bring high amounts of stress to a family gathering.

Defining What You Can Control and What You Can't

How often have you had an experience where you knew you were going to see your family and could predict in advance what annoying or frustrating interactions you might have with certain family members, and things went exactly as you’d hoped they wouldn’t? Have you ever wished you had a remote control for humans, complete with pause, rewind and mute buttons? While you can’t control the actions of others, you can control your response to their actions, which can alter the whole dynamic and create more positive interactions.

In fact, Dr. Kathleen Kelley Reardon, USC Marshall School professor and author of Comebacks at Work: Using Conversation to Master Confrontation, estimates that 75% of how people treat us is under our control because of this. She advocates taking a different approach if you want to experience new, more positive results with these types of conflicts in the future.

“Communication is like chess where every move one person makes influences the choices of the other,” says Reardon. “A good rule of thumb is to not say what you would normally say in response to any provocation. If you usually meet a challenge with a challenge, try asking a question instead. If you let someone go on and on and that leads to anger, link something you have to say to his or her topic and then change to another one.

If you think you’re being blamed for something, instead of getting your back up, try saying, “There’s some truth to that” or “I hadn’t thought of it that way but I see your point.” In other words, tweak what you normally do. Then you won’t just slip into conflict. Above all, don’t be predictable. When we’re predictable, those who want to argue can maneuver us into doing just that.”

The Role of Patterns

This solution is based on the observation that many of our conflicts with people we know well are based on repeated patterns that we unwittingly perpetuate. We may try to be proactive about responding in a way that will resolve the conflict each time (though let's face it, many of us are more focused on “winning” the argument rather than on dissolving or resolving the conflict, and there’s often a difference). This response could actually serve to keep things going the way they have in the past, which may not be what we want.

“All families and most friends bring with them emotional baggage from the past,” explains Reardon. “In Comebacks at Work we describe how this leads to URPS (unwanted repetitive episodes) in conversation. Most of us slip into these dysfunctional and stressful patterns without even noticing because we’ve been in them so many times before.

“Some of the common URPS involve sibling rivalry issues, patterns with parents that have never gone away, political issues even in families where everyone identifies with the same political party, and who is more right about topics that aren’t really important.”

Simple Changes for Better Results

According to Reardon, the key to getting out of these URPS situations is to recognize “choice points” in a conversation, or points in the discourse where you can alter the tone and direction that the exchange takes, by altering your own responses. She gives the following scenario as an example:

Alan: That’s a stupid idea.
Eleanor: What makes you a genius?
Alan: I’m not a genius but I know when something is ridiculous.
Eleanor: You’re ridiculous.

“After Alan said, “That’s a stupid idea,” Eleanor was at a choice point, explains Reardon. “She reacted in the way many people would. But, she could have altered this conversation.” Here’s how that might look:

Alan: “That’s a stupid idea.”
Eleanor: “At first, I thought so too. But hear me out.”

Or Eleanor might have said: “New ideas tend to sound stupid, but you’ll see in a minute why this one isn’t.”

“Instead of reacting to Alan with an attack, she chose to bypass that option,” Reardon points out. “Instead, she allowed that he may have a point but he’ll think differently when she finishes speaking.

“This is responding rather than reacting,” she says. “It gives the other person a chance to rethink whether he or she wants to argue. It’s a gift of sorts to be accepted or not – the other person’s choice point. Most people respond to such generosity in conversation with returned generosity.”

What You Can Do Now

If you're anticipating conflict the next time you get together with certain people, you may want to think about things ahead of time and identify patterns you've experienced before, think about potential choice points, and consider alternative responses you may choose.

Try to come up with a few tactics for each scenario, and think about what would feel right for you.

Rather than getting caught up in the usual conflict and hurt feelings, try to imagine what tone you'd like the conversation to take, and see if you can lead the interaction in that direction with your own responses at pivotal choice points.

You may be surprised at how quickly things can change.

Learning better conflict resolution skills, knowing what to avoid in a conflict, and how to cool off when upset can also help immensely. And when all else fails, extra-strong listening skills have helped de-escalate many a conflict.

By Elizabeth Scott, PhD
Elizabeth Scott, PhD is an author, workshop leader, educator, and award-winning blogger on stress management, positive psychology, relationships, and emotional wellbeing.