People Mother Daughter HugFamily fights are never pleasant. Whether you are dealing with whining kids, shut-down teenagers, or a stubborn spouse, the reaction to conflict is messy. At least that’s what we have learned to expect.

What if it could be different? What if family fights and conflicts could be turned into opportunities to become closer? What if problems could be solved with everyone walking away feeling more deeply cared for and loved?

Family fighting is, at one level, about power. Someone is telling someone else what to do. The unwilling recipient is resisting, which itself is an exercise of power. In a flash, emotions are escalated and the fight is on. You can go down that old road or you can try something different. Here are six ways to use a family fight to bring everyone closer.

Don’t Fight Power with Power - Our first reaction is to push back when we have been pushed.  Ever wonder why that is? Really, why do we push back against an argumentative child? There are a lot of rationalizations and justifications, some of which have limited merit. The real reason for our unconscious reaction is programming: it’s what we learned as children. In fact, the very first conflict resolution lesson most adults learned was “He who has the most power wins.” Think about the lesson from the perspective of two years old. It is indelible because at two, we are essentially powerless and completely dependent. That lesson is never corrected so that as adults, we react as we learned when two years old: Resist power. The problem is that this reaction is unconscious and therefore often counterproductive.

Earn Your Turn - In any fight, you have a need to be listened to and understood. That need may be overwhelming. You want your child to listen and obey. You want your spouse to listen and understand. You want your friend to listen and care. At the same time, the person you are fighting has the same need to be listened to. People raise their voices and shout at each other because they are not being listened to. It’s totally unconscious. When you pay attention to arguments, you will see it. The need to be listened to drives most family conflicts. If you can put aside your need for a few minutes, the landscape will change rapidly. This is called earning your turn. You have to earn your turn to be listened to.

Listen for the Right Things - If you are going to earn your turn to be listened to, you have to listen for the right information. The best way to do this in emotional situations is to ignore the words. This is counter-intuitive because we think we get most meaning from the words other’s speak. However, most of the time, people don’t say what they mean because they don’t know what they are feeling. The technical word for this is alexithymia, which is not having the ability to identify and label the emotions one is experiencing. Most people suffer from mild levels of alexithymia. They are unable to express what they are feeling with particularity. In fact, most people have very poor linkages between their emotional life and their emotional vocabulary. This is the key: listen for the.

Label the Emotions - Instead of arguing back to a stubborn spouse, label his or her emotions with a simple statement like, “You are angry and frustrated.” Keep it simple and direct. If you get it right, your spouse will nod and say something like “Got that right!”

Solve Problems Later - Many fights occur at really inconvenient times. The power struggle is about whose will may be imposed on the problem. Typically, there are two solutions vying for dominance and the conflict become a competitive “I win, you lose,” proposition. Conflict is not the time to solve problems so don’t try. Your best tactic is to de-escalate the strong emotions by listening deeply and labeling the emotions you see. The situation will calm down quickly, usually in less than 30 seconds. You can either move on to problem-solving or reach an agreement to work on it at a more convenient time. If you take the time to listen, acknowledge the problem, and offer to work on a solution later, the immediate crisis will pass. More often than not, you will get your way for now.

Make Agreements - Problem-solving is not so great unless you can reach agreement. Good agreements will be specific about time, task, standard, responsibilities, and accountability. You can make perfectly good agreements with young children, provided the agreements are simple. The older the child, the more complex the agreement can be. Agreements with your spouse can alleviate unnecessary conflict and provide the foundation for deep trust. Be careful not to confuse agreements with expectations. Expectations cause a lot of conflicts because they are never clearly expressed nor agreed upon. Your expectation that a room is to be neat and tidy is not an agreement with your child. Make the agreement and eliminate the chaos that comes from unstated and unclear expectations.

These six steps implemented over a period of time will bring your family closer together. Everyone will feel respected and listened to, even when there is conflict. Emotions will be appreciated and respected. Agreements will be kept more often than not. These are the true secrets of a close, peaceful family.

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