Teaching kids about conflict resolution

Apr 15, 2009 at 2:31 p.m. ET

I hear there are homes where everyone agrees all the time and there is never conflict. My home is not one of them. While conflict is rarely serious, we are a household of five strong-willed people, and disagreements are bound to occur. I've noticed something in our recent disagreeing, however: Each of us has fallen into the bad habit of saying, "You're not listening to me," when we really mean, "I'm upset that you don't agree with me."

Conflict in Family
This is an issue in the outside world, too. I overhear conversations and read accounts of meetings in town or in the schools where someone declares that she was not listened to. The underlying supposition is that one side is obviously right, and if the other person or side had listened, he would have agreed and tossed his own opinion out the window. This shows a lack of basic respect for differing opinions, and it often precludes compromise and other methods of conflict resolution.

Constructive disagreement

Many years ago, I tried very hard to learn how to "fight fair." To me, this means expressing my opinion (or side of a disagreement) without crossing that variable and invisible line of overflowing emotion, accusation and so on. I tried to learn how to express myself by saying, "I feel strongly about this because..." or, "I feel X when Y happens..." It was an effort to take responsibility for my own emotions and try to see the whole situation so I could find a compromise -- rather than super-glue myself to certain feelings. It's something I've tried to teach the kids, as well as demonstrate in the midst of a parent-child conflict. But I got sloppy, and so did the kids.When Alfs and I disagreed recently about whether or not it was appropriate for him to see a specific movie, we each said, "You're not listening to me!" to each other. He was really upset that I didn't agree that he could see it because "all" his friends had, and I was upset that he didn't just obey me already. He had heard my reasoning just fine, and I had heard his, flawed though each of us thought the other's was. Still, I could have said, "I hear your reasoning, and I don't agree with it. This is not an appropriate movie for you, and you may not watch it." Alfs could have said something similar. The thing is, in this case, as the parent, I prevailed. In other types of disagreements, the outcome is far less clear.Alfs and I talked about this later. I expressed my desire that we all be more clear in our meanings. Alfs was still mad he didn't get to see the movie; however, he did agree with me somewhat. Saying exactly what we meant might have at least calmed the situation down sooner, even if it wouldn't have completely resolved it.

Basic respect

Everyone can't agree all the time, or even some of the time. But remembering that we each have opinions and points-of-view (within the family and well beyond a home's walls)  is a first step. Rather than being upset that someone is "not listening" to you, whether it's your child, your sweetie, your in-law or someone else, how about looking at your own feelings and thinking about what is really going on? Ask yourself what you really want to say, and use words that convey your meaning. Take responsibility for your own feelings, and communicate them.While some positions, for me, feel rather absolute, others are (or might be) movable. Constructive and respectful discussion -- even disagreement -- about the possible movables as well as the absolutes is far preferable than straight dismissal.

Heading toward that compromise

Once we start to use words that mean what we want to say, then we can validate the other side of the conflict and move toward compromise and resolution. "I hear what you are saying, and although I disagree, I do think I understand your point of view," has so much more openness to ongoing dialog than, "You're not listening to me!" This doesn't guarantee absolute resolution for one side or the other (or even compromise), but it does mean there is ongoing communication and not a shutting down and dismissing of other points of view.While I would prefer not to have disagreements in the house at all (after all, I am always right... ha!), they do happen. With a return to careful and respectful communication at home, however, I can help myself and my kids turn that constructive communication outward, too.

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