Family conflict? The fact that not only milk and honey flow within our families, and conflicts crop up more often than we would like, is not new to anyone. Experience teaches us that people who share a roof as well as a last name clash in their opinions or behaviours in direct proportion to the number of hours they spend together.
The territory of the family is often exposed to arguments, risking the formation of entrenched opposing camps. Whether they are frequent or isolated events, tense relationships, that simple blood connections do not preclude, have their starting point in different perspectives, needs, and expectations.
For example, teenagers yearn for recognition of independence, and parents want their authority and right to the last word to be confirmed. The reality of different needs often sets the stage for the outbreak of “wars” at home.
What are family conflicts?
Conflicts reflect more than just a misunderstanding. They encompass situations in which each individual feels threatened by the opposite position of the other, based on subjective experience, their own beliefs, and their own needs.
Factors that open the door to family conflicts include poor communication, lack of clarity on mutual expectations, opposing interests, personality differences, and transition periods that family members go through. Consequences include resentment, emotional distancing, permanent tensions, or other unwanted actions that can lead to verbal or even physical violence.
Just as reasons for the conflicts cannot be submitted to a single category, the reactions to conflicts also do not conform to a single pattern. Some people prefer to deal directly with the problems they face, while others reject the round table strategy and transparent approaches.
Regardless of the situation, conflicts should not be minimized or subtly overlooked. Avoidance as a method of resolving family differences only works in the short term and within certain conditions.
How many of us have slammed the bedroom door, running away from a painful discussion? How many of us have invented excuses to distract from sensitive topics? And how many of us have chosen to avoid problems instead of confronting them head on?
Whether we are afraid of the confrontation itself or just want to spare other people’s feelings, not opening “Pandora’s box” brings advantages, but only in the short term. In reality, avoidance behaviour amplifies the problems, keeping the active conflict in a perpetual state of growth. This increases the risk of giving in at any time under the pressure of unshared feelings, which can later be expressed in a very unpleasant manner.
Managing family conflict
Conflict cannot be avoided indefinitely, but it can be managed wisely.
Starting with a series of typical responses that people adopt in the middle of a dispute, American researchers Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann have identified five styles of conflict management practiced in the workplace, but which are also valid in other types of interpersonal relationships: avoidance, cooperation, compromise, accommodation, and competition.
When dealing with misunderstandings, the researchers say, people tend to set their reactions according to one of the two main guiding principles of crisis-specific behaviours: assertiveness or cooperation. The way they choose to relate to the problem actually indicates how they choose to relate to the other person.
Assertive people aim to resolve conflicts on personal terms so as to achieve their desired goal, and those who focus on cooperation also display different perspectives, with an empathic orientation.
In this context, avoidance is neither assertive nor collaborative, but just a covert way of ignoring differences (no one wins, no one loses).
Suitable for minor conflicts or when emotions are too strong to control, avoidance can be beneficial by delaying confrontation until a more favourable moment or transferring the problem to someone better prepared to deal with it.
Other benefits include stress reduction, temporary detachment from a particular problem, and minimal investment of time and energy.
At the other extreme, avoidance also has a number of costs. It promotes the accumulation of resentments, the degradation of communication, and the weakening of people’s ability to make decisions.
Cooperation as a way of managing conflicts involves both assertiveness and collaboration; it implies the voluntary effort of working with the opposite side to find a solution that is convenient to both parties (everyone wins).
Cooperation requires a creative approach to interpersonal relationships, but also the willingness to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes. It is not limited to a superficial type of communication and consensus, but seeks to understand, in depth, what caused the opposition and how the parties can truly harmonize. Although it seems an ideal strategy, cooperation has its limits, not being practical in situations where time is crucial and a quick solution is needed.
Benefits: it strengthens relationships and commitments, encourages thoughtful decisions, and enhances communication.
Costs: it consumes time and energy, overworking parties on a mental and on an emotional level.
Compromise, the third way to deal with conflicts, can take place between two parties that are equally powerful and willing to negotiate to achieve a certain exchange of benefits.
Compromise ensures that opponents meet halfway and provides a quick way out of the impasse when circumstances allow for satisfactory concessions (they lose something, they gain something else). In case of major misunderstandings, repeated compromises can affect the degree of trust invested in the relationship and the needs of those involved.
Benefits: it cultivates pragmatism and the idea of fairness, maintains the functional balance of the parts, and saves time and energy.
Costs: it entails a partial sacrifice of one’s own interests, the adoption of satisfactory, but not necessarily effective, solutions, and it predisposes us to superficiality in understanding problems.
When it comes to generosity or a lack of selfishness, accommodation contains a significant dose of self-sacrifice (I lose, you gain). Occasionally, it may be closely related to the intrinsic or extrinsic need to obey the decisions of others. At work, it often overlaps with a hierarchically inferior position, and in the family it reflects an unequal balance of power or the tendency of one party to put harmony above justice, to value the relationship more than the object of the conflict. Accommodation has the disadvantage of increasing the risk of abuse and diminishing self-confidence.
Benefits: caring for others, restoring harmony, and stopping the conflict situation.
Costs: neglecting one’s own needs, and a loss of respect and motivation.
Competition is a purely assertive way of reacting to conflict, an individualistic method of rejecting cooperation. It only takes into account one’s own needs, generates offensive behaviour and encourages a struggle for power (I win, you lose). Like all other conflict management styles, competition has a positive side, focused on achieving personal goals.
Benefits: strengthens self-esteem, provides quick fixes in emergencies, and works in self-defence mode.
Costs: affects long-term relationships, aggravates conflicts, and decreases initiative and motivation.
The best way to deal with family conflict
Conflict is often synonymous with terms such as quarrel, war, anger, pain, loss, control, fear, and hatred. Despite its negative halo, engaging in conflict produces better effects than avoiding it.
In this equation, the skills needed to manage the conflict and choose the best approach are important. At the organizational level, a report by CPP Global shows that training in conflict management does not reduce its occurrence, but it does reduce its negative effects. The same thing happens in the family.
Whether we are talking about behavioural, cognitive, or emotional skills, they can be developed in a neutral, confidence-inducing environment. The aim is to be competent in sustaining difficult conversations involving high stakes, differences of opinion and intense emotions.
Among the most useful skills for conflict management are the ability to control stress, emotions and behaviour, to pay attention to feelings expressed, and to understand and respect the differences in the relationship. Even humour helps to relax and verbalize opinions that are difficult to express in other ways, a sign that we must always be open to any alternatives designed to ease our situation.
Misunderstandings in the family can bring us closer if we manage to respond constructively in conflict situations, which means:
- accepting that there is another point of view, listening to it, being willing to understand it, as opposed to not showing empathy;
- having calm, non-aggressive reactions, which show respect for the other, as opposed to the manifestation of impulsive and irrational reactions;
- being prepared to forgive and forget the possible mistakes we attribute to others, as opposed to the accumulation of resentments, rejection, or treating others with indifference;
- seeking the common denominator and avoiding revenge, as opposed to compromise-resistant rigidity;
- having the courage to face delicate issues and anticipate positive results, as opposed to avoiding conflict and anticipating disastrous consequences;
Although temperament or habit may make us prone to act in a certain way when we disagree with those around us, time and experience can teach us new skills in dealing with conflicts, so that we can react in the most appropriate way to any given situation, and not necessarily in the easiest or most familiar way.