Holidays are supposed to be joyous times to see our relatives, filled with gingerbread and ornaments, but they can also be wonderful opportunities for family arguments. Are you going to visit that old uncle who makes wisecracks about your job (or lack thereof) every time you see him? Or the aunt who won’t look at your wife? Or those little cousins who drive your kids crazy? Does it give you a pit in your stomach just to think about it?
I thought it might be helpful to take a page out of the mediator’s book to share a few secrets with you about how we deal with conflict. Some of these are lessons I learned in mediator training, some come from observations I’ve made in my years working with families in conflict. Here are a few ideas:
1. Prepare yourself.
You cannot change anyone else, you can only change yourself. You do have the power to change your attitude, and that can make all the difference. Decide what your priorities are and try to stick to them. What is your overall goal for the encounter? What would you like the outcome to be? What would be a successful visit? Do you want to get something off of your chest that has been there for a long time? Do you want to protect the kids from being in the middle? Try to verbalize your goal in a short simple sentence that you can remind yourself of later, almost like a mantra. Visualize it.
This is not just a touchy feely idea. I mean it literally. Take one step backward and take three long breaths. Just the process of doing this will bring your awareness outside of the conflict, and into your own body. It will help you stay centered. You will be taking care of yourself, and the other person will never even notice. Remembering to do this might be difficult, and takes practice.
3. Listen to your body.
Be aware of your own physical perceptions during the argument. Is there a knot in your stomach? Are you resisting the urge to run? Do you feel choked up? Each of these feelings is tied to emotion – sometimes very deep feelings. You may not be able to tend to them at the moment, but it is helpful to take an inventory so you can come back later.
4. Listen to your voice.
How you express yourself can be as important as what you are discussing. Is the discussion loud? Are there expletives involved? Is it seething and reserved? Do you hear yourself saying something like, “You idiot, everybody knows that …” Think about how you can get your point across while being respectful at the same time? You will make your point more effectively if it is presented in a way that the other person can hear.
5. Listen. Listen. Listen.
As the old saying goes, there is a reason you have 2 ears and only one mouth. Pretend you just landed here from another planet and you are trying to figure out what this person is saying. What words is she or he using? Approach the discussion with curiosity, as if you were just hearing it for the first time. You may think you know exactly what he or she means, but leave room for the possibility that you do not. Check in to see if you understood him or her correctly. Use a phrase like, “I hear you saying ___, is that what you mean?” This, in itself, can be a very powerful tool.
Finally, don’t forget to take an inventory afterward and give yourself credit for the steps you have taken toward family harmony.
Conflict is inevitable even in the best of relationships. These tools can help you use conflict to listen to your own needs and to bring deeper understanding with those you love.