18 Dec Tip #3: How to Make Peace During a Family Fight
Families can provide us with support, love, and a feeling of deep connection. On the flip side, our family spaces can also be where we experience the most tension, disagreements, and feelings of betrayal. Read on for tips on how to manage family conflicts if they arise over the holidays, or during any family gathering.
During the holiday season, the pressure for everyone to be “nice” while unresolved conflicts simmer under the surface can result in unexpected blowouts or passive-aggressive comments while passing the family favourite dish around the table. Betrayals, hurt feelings, or perceived failures in being a “good” family member can be brought back up and suddenly your family gathering feels like Armageddon.
It doesn’t matter if you are the target of someone’s anger, the person who is angry or hurt, or an observer to the drama unfolding, these kinds of fights are not what we hope for when we spend time with family.
Here are our top four strategies for managing familial conflict if it arises:
- Know and respect your Role
In the moment when a family fight breaks out, it’s a good time to consider what your role is in resolving the fight. There are three basic roles you could choose from in a family argument:
Are you simply an observer, and this particular argument has nothing to do with you? Maybe it’s best to stay out of it, walk into another room, and enjoy your visit with others, or leave the party entirely if you need to. We don’t have to take on other people’s dramas if we don’t want to, and in many cases, our intervention could be unwelcome and cause more conflict instead of resolve it.
Or you could be a helper. This is when you are not the person in the middle of the fight, and you want to mediate a conflict between others, or you want to stand up for someone who is being bullied.
In both cases, ask first before you get involved. If your grandpa is harassing your cousin, ask your cousin, would you like me to help you with this situation? They may be really grateful for your help, or they may not want it at all. If they say yes, ask how you can help and follow their guidance, don’t assume that you know what they need.
Or, are you watching your aunt and your mom duke it out over a perceived betrayal from 30 years ago and you want to mediate? Share your intention with them by saying something like “I know you both love each other a lot, and I think that if we sat down and talked this through, you might be able to resolve this and forgive each other. I don’t want to take sides on this issue, but I could help by being a third neutral person to help you both hear each other a little better. Would that be helpful?”
If you take on the role of mediator, use the following two key tips on intention and guidance to help you craft good questions to ask both parties, and make sure there is space for each side to feel truly heard. It is not your job to make a judgment, but rather to help create a safe space for people to figure out their issues with each other.
If you’re in the middle of the fight, either as the person who feels hurt, or has been accused of wrong-doing, you are a facilitator, meaning you are the director for how you want to address this issue.
Do you want to try and resolve the issue right now?
Do you want to simply share with this person that you love them, but you’re not willing to discuss it any further?
Or, do you want to resolve the conflict, but you feel like your great uncle’s new year’s party isn’t the place to do it?
In any of these cases, share your intention clearly and compassionately with the other person. If you want to address the issue at hand, then the next two tips will help you to do so in the kindest way to both the other person and to yourself.
- Know your intent, and listen carefully to understand their intent.
If you’re on the receiving end of someone else’s anger, look below the surface of their words and actions to see what their deeper intention might be in that moment. When someone is hurt, angry, or upset, it’s usually because a basic human need has not been met.
If you’re the one who is angry or upset, take a deep breath and consider what you would most like to achieve out of bringing this issue forward with your family. What need are you trying to fulfill?
Chances are, both sides of the disagreement may have an underlying common intention, such as wanting to feel loved and respected, wanting to be heard, or wanting to feel accepted for who you are in your family. Understanding each other’s intentions is the first step towards common ground and resolution.
- Guide others on how to treat you, and be open to guidance on what they need in your relationship with them.
While we may all have foundational human needs in common, the way that we need to receive those needs could be quite different. Ideas of respectful or appropriate behaviour can be vastly different even within the same families, let alone with our in-laws.
Some people love hugs, others feel like their personal space is invaded. Some people want you to help clean up their kitchen after dinner, others think it’s the height of rudeness for a guest to touch anything in the kitchen. Some people are fine with you being a little late to their party, others expect you to be there five minutes earlier than the given time.
If you’re in the middle of a fight, take a breath, and share your intention, then ask a few questions: Why do they feel the way they feel? What do they hope would be different in your relationship? What does respect look and feel like to them in this context?
Start with the intention to listen, and resist the urge to correct or fight. What you are listening to is their side of the river, this is what is real for them, and how they see the world and your relationship.
Keep asking questions until you feel like you have a deep understanding of where they are at. Then, repeat back to them what you believe they have shared with you is important to them, by saying something like “I think what I am hearing from you is _____________________, does that sound right?” and allow space for them to clarify. Once you have a full understanding of their perspective, then offer your perspective on what you need, what is important to you, and what respect would feel like in this context for you.
They will be more likely to be open to hearing your side of the story because you have actively demonstrated that you are willing to hear theirs.
- Respect and protect what is sacred on both sides of the river
In The Bridging Principles™, when we use the word “sacred”, we are not just referring to religious objects or places. By Sacred, we are referring to objects, places, or even your state of mind.
Who decides what is Sacred? They do, and you do too! Only you know what is most important to you in your home, in your heart and for your peace of mind. Only they know truly what is most important to them and how they want to be treated, or how they want their home to be respected by a visitor.
When a family fight is happening, odds are that a person has felt like something sacred and special to them has been violated. It could be that you unknowingly sat in your Uncle’s favourite chair and now he’s making passive-aggressive comments because he feels displaced. Or, maybe you take pride in having a really colourful outfit, and your cousin is saying you look like a clown and your feelings are hurt. Whatever it is, all of us want to feel respected, and all of us have things we hold especially sacred to us.
In a conflict, take the time to share what is most sacred to you that you feel has been violated, and also receive guidance on what is most sacred to the other person. The solution could be as simple as guiding your cousin that it really hurts your feelings when they make negative comments on your appearance, and then asking them to please stop.
- You have the right to walk away
If, at any time, you feel like what is most sacred to you is not being respected, and after providing guidance, it becomes clear that their intent is harmful, or for whatever reason they are unable to respect what you have asked them to respect, then you have every right to exit or ask someone to leave.
Not all conflicts can be resolved. Not everyone is ready or willing to hear your side of the story or respect what is sacred to you. In these situations, ask yourself, a couple of questions:
“Am I willing to be vulnerable enough to try and resolve this conflict?” If your answer is yes, and you tried your best, then ask yourself: “Have I done everything I can to build a bridge of understanding and respect with this person?”
If, after some soul-searching you feel like this isn’t healthy or safe for you , then you can walk away from the disagreement. After all, you can only build your half of the bridge, and sometimes, even with family, it’s best to part ways as peacefully as possible to protect yourself and what matters most to you.
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