Someone asked me the other day what the “secret sauce” was in managing family conflict. I thought that was pretty funny because the definition of a difficult family member or family conflict implies that it can’t be easily remedied by any one solution. Alas, there is no secret sauce that I have found, but there are solutions to this tricky problem.
It takes a multi-pronged approach. First, the family has to identify the old patterns of behavior that are creating the problem. In most families I have worked with, each conflict has the same dynamics. For example, one person makes a snarky or challenging statement, several other people rise to the bait, and then everyone takes sides and the battle begins. Determine what the pattern is. What are the triggers? Does one person always play a certain role?
Next, change the conflict environment. In one family I worked with, several family members would get into an argument at every family meeting. In this instance, we couldn’t adjust the triggering statement, but we stopped the conflict cycle by changing the response. We had to stop letting the argument escalate with the family as an audience.
Instead of responding immediately after the challenge was posed, the family council chair waited until after the meeting. Then she called the individual who had made the challenging statement to follow up and understand their concerns. Once the scope of the concern was fleshed out, the family council chair sent an e-mail to the family with a more detailed description of the concern. Then the family agreed to create a task force to address the concern in a constructive way.
There were several benefits to this approach.
- The family didn’t have to sit through a stressful argument during a family meeting.
- The family didn’t feel that they had to take sides in the discussion.
- The individual with the concern felt heard and taken seriously, not brushed off or shut down.
- The family made an informed decision by taking time to fully articulate the concern and then putting together a task force to answer the question. This gave the family time and space to do research and analysis on the issue.
- The family changed the conflict environment by stretching the decision making process out. This allowed for a more reasoned approach to responding to a potentially volatile issue.
Once the family demonstrated that this was the new way of managing conflict, the family started to build trust around the process. The meetings were no longer stressful. The task force process allowed individuals to build working relationships with one another, and it opened up the family to changing policies and processes that would not have been examined otherwise.