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Managing Family Conflicts while Sheltering-in-Place

by JACK HAMILTON and ELISABETH SEAMAN

Co-Authors of Conflict  The Unexpected Gift

There is no doubt that conflicts are part of family life, especially when families are sheltering-in-place during the coronavirus pandemic. Rosalind Wiseman, the founder of an organization called Cultures of Dignity, writes in her April 14 New York Times editorial about the emotional and physical toll that living in lockdown takes on young people and the people who care for them. 

“Some conflict is normal in a family. When we’re quarantined together around the clock for days on end, with everyone affected by a range of stresses, it’s practically inevitable. And the way we talk to one another about our conflicts can often make them worse.”

To ease such tensions, Wiseman recommends organizing a family meeting. “When you have reached the moment when things run off the rails, and you’re not sure how to get back on track, it’s time for a family meeting. Don’t wait until you’re so angry that you blow up. If you feel like you need to have a meeting, that’s a sign you should have one. But sometimes the same dynamics that cause conflict can actually derail the meeting itself. You need a strategy.”

Wiseman suggests you start by telling the members of your family that they are going through a really tough time together, and everyone is responding differently to the difficult circumstances. She says it makes sense to explain to them that it is human nature for people in a family to get on each other’s nerves, and having a meeting can be a good way to iron out tensions.

Wiseman points to several principles, which are critical to carrying out an effective family meeting: 

1.  LISTEN—listening is being ready to be changed by what you hear. It doesn’t mean simply waiting for someone to quit talking so we can tell them why we’re right and they’re wrong. 

2.  OPINIONS—each of us has the right to have different opinions or feelings about family circumstances. No one has the right to judge another person’s opinions or feelings as wrong. 

3.  TOGETHER—all of us are facing the same problem. How can we change things we do that are annoying to others? Our mutual destiny is to be living together. So try to anticipate positive outcomes of a family meeting.  

4.  CHANGE—each of us is no doubt going to have to change at least one behavior to help improve our family situation.

Each of Wiseman’s four principles are right on target, but it seems to us that she has placed the essential one at the top of her list--listening. We refer to it in our book, Conflict—The Unexpected Gift, as listening for deep understanding, which is marked by curiosity, a virtue we have the capability of claiming and nurturing. It involves a high degree of openness—a willingness to let go of assumptions and take in ambiguity. The person listening for deep understanding wants to understand the feelings behind the words of the other, and strives to develop what we call a “third ear” to hear those feelings.

The individual who calls for a family meeting during the coronavirus pandemic could urge the other members of the family ahead of time to practice these components of listening for deep understanding during the meeting:

1. Be mindfully respectful of every other person in the family who is present at the meeting.

2. Be truly open to the other person’s viewpoints or feelings about a subject of interest to them. Be willing to learn more from them regarding what they are thinking or feeling about the topic.

3. Be willing to ask a family member open-ended questions to gain more in-depth understanding of the thoughts or feelings they are expressing about an account they are giving or a position they are stating.

4. Be silent while the other person is expressing their viewpoints or feelings about a subject. Try as hard as you can to suspend opposing thoughts or feelings that may come to you.

5. Be honest with yourself that your viewpoints or feelings about a topic may well be different from another’s. Entertain the possibility that their viewpoints or feelings have as much validity as yours. Let go of the notion that these two sets of ideas are competing; let them have their own space, side by side.

Having productive family meetings, especially about difficult or personal subjects, is hard—no question about it. But the only way to get better is to keep trying. If a meeting hits a snag or two, think about what went wrong later on. And next time, try to do it better.

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