Cures for the Common Conflict: Family Problem-Solving Sessions
Conflict between parents and kids is normal, natural, and unavoidable. It’s an inevitable accompaniment to interlocking lives and feelings. But when battle lines get drawn, when “Because I said so” locks horns with “You can’t tell me what to do,” the problem disappears amidst “parental authority” and “children’s rights,” and everyone loses.
There’s nothing wrong with a family just because the interests, needs, or feelings of its members collide on occasion. It’s not the conflict that does the damage. It is how the conflict does or doesn’t get resolved that does the damage.
Problems don’t magically disappear. In fact, if left untreated, they usually get worse. Irritation turns into resentment. Hurt turns into rage. Families shouldn’t be afraid of dealing with problems. They should be afraid of not dealing with them. The key to constructive problem-solving is to approach problems as creative challenges—brain-teasers where the “winning” solution is the one in which the needs and feelings of all are heard and respected.
The best way to get to problems before they get to you is to have a weekly family meeting—a time to make plans, ask questions, share news, and address issues causing friction. If the idea of a family meeting meets with resistance, explain that people who share common interests and objectives—be they basketball players, management teams, faculty members, or parents and children—need to get together regularly to maintain harmony, trust, and common purpose.
Here are some ground rules for family meetings:
Set a regular time to meet each week. While this might seem unnecessary, it’s essential if the Venn diagrams of everyone’s lessons, appointments, practices, classes, and social engagements are ever going to overlap. If someone has a legitimate excuse for missing a meeting, try to reschedule. I’d suggest that attendance be voluntary rather than mandatory. If the meeting is fun and constructive, kids will want to come. And if a child chooses not to attend, he or she will still have to abide by whatever was decided.
Create an agenda. This can be a list on the refrigerator door, or texts sent to an appointed aggregator. While last-minute issues can always be brought to the meeting, an agenda gets people thinking ahead of time about what they’d like to discuss. It should include “old business” that needs revisiting, as well as new items.
Be positive. Begin each meeting by recognizing kindnesses, contributions, and improvements. Family members can be asked to offer a compliment, recognize an achievement, or express gratitude.
Rotate the chair. This doesn’t mean twirling in your seat while you meet. It means having a different family member run each meeting. This prevents any one person from becoming a Prima Dominator, and gives kids a chance to develop leadership skills. One of the responsibilities of the leader is to encourage respectful listening by ensuring that only one person talks at a time. With younger children, this can be facilitated by passing an object that endows its holder with the right to speak, kind of like the conch shell in Lord of the Flies—with the hope that your family will maintain a greater level of civility than did William Golding’s stranded schoolboys.
Keep it short. While you want enough time to deal thoughtfully and thoroughly with the agenda, don’t meet for too long. People get restless, thinking gets fuzzy, and resistance can build. If there’s a wide age-range amongst your kids, deal with issues that concern the whole family first, and then dismiss younger children so you can focus on topics involving your teens. If you run out of time, you can either seek a consensus to extend the meeting, schedule another session, or simply wait until the next family meeting.
Appoint a scribe. The scribe’s job is to keep a record of ideas, plans, decisions, etc. He or she can maintain the agenda and remind people between meetings of any actions they need to take.
Family meetings should be fun, informative, and constructive. While they can be used for everything from planning vacations to tackling projects to choosing presents for Grandma, one of their primary purposes is to address conflicts that arise. The best way to do this without degenerating into groan-filled gripe sessions is to create a safe, respectful environment for airing feelings and resolving disputes. Here’s how
Use a structured problem-solving method. This guides family members through a series of steps that maximize the chances for respectful discussion, empathic listening, and fair and lasting resolutions.
- Identify the problem. This is best done when you’re not yelling at each other. To create a constructive climate for problem solving, state the issue in terms of needs, feelings, and facts (“I-Messages), as opposed to accusation, criticism, and blame (“You-Messages).RIGHT (Parent): “When I took the car to drive to my appointment, the gas tank was empty. How can we make sure that doesn’t happen?”
WRONG (Parent): “Which of you inconsiderate brats used the car without filling it up?”RIGHT (Teen): “I’d like to talk about how I can have more money.”
WRONG (Teen): “You never give me enough money. All my friends have bigger allowances.”You can see how attacks are likely to trigger fights and defensiveness, while statements of need and fact open the door to more reasoned discussion and a broader range of proposals, compromises, and fixes.
- Brainstorm solutions. Here’s where you think up as many ideas as possible. (The scribe should be writing them down.) The more ideas the merrier. It’s fine to be silly. Judging and analyzing are not allowed at this stage as they inhibit contributions. Who’s going to risk giving an idea if someone else is going to say “That’s stupid” or “That’ll never work”? The goal at this stage is unfettered creativity; sometimes wild ideas lead to sage solutions.
- Discuss options. Now’s the time to evaluate the suggestions and eliminate ideas that are obviously impractical or unrealistic (e.g., building an addition so every family member can have their own bathroom). When ideas are rejected it should be done without labeling them “dumb” or “lame.”
- Choose a solution. Here’s where the rubber hits the reality. Pick the option that most fairly and effectively addresses the issue. There are no right or wrong solutions. What works for your family won’t necessarily work for another family. A solution is right if everybody agrees on the chosen course of action. Be on guard against Silly Solutions, Absurd Approaches, and Ridiculous Resolves. In your desire to reach agreement you may accept a “solution” that is patently preposterous. Don’t agree just so you can say you’ve addressed the problem. Once you’ve selected a strategy, identify any “action steps” and make sure each family member understands his or her responsibilities in carrying out the solution.
- Monitor Keep an eye on how things are going. Some solutions will fall apart. Perhaps the problem was misidentified, the plan was unclear, the circumstances changed, or someone forgot to carry out a responsibility. Spend some time during each family meeting checking up on prior problems. If everything’s fine, this validates the process and warrants recognition of everyone’s good efforts. And if something has come unraveled, take a new look at it, figure out what went wrong, and retool your approach.
Problem-solving sessions really work. Why?
- Many problems exist simply because no one bothers to tackle them. The symptoms may be treated, but not the underlying cause. This method focuses attention on the core issue until it’s resolved.
- The steps give structure to the process.
- No one’s on trial, no one’s in the hot seat.
- The process leads to creative solutions and compromises that might otherwise never be considered.
- Nobody loses. There are no votes, no “majority rules.” It’s a process of reaching agreement. People are much more likely to carry out a decision they helped to make than one imposed upon them.
- The structure creates a forum that respects people’s needs and feelings.
- The process focuses on the future rather than the past, on solving rather than blaming.
- The steps can address virtually any family problem or conflict—practical or relational—before or after it has erupted.
The great thing about successful problem-solving is that it builds feelings of trust and respect amongst family members. The family gains confidence in its ability to deal with discord. If you think of your favorite stores or services, I bet the ones you like the most aren’t necessarily the ones that never messed up or disappointed you. They’re the ones that, if they did make a mistake, went out of their way to make everything right. And so it is with families: The measure of a healthy family should not be whether or not it experiences conflict. The measure should be whether the family resolves its conflicts with fairness and love.
Alex J. Packer, Ph.D., “Manners Guru to the Youth of America,” is a very polite educator, psychologist, and award-winning author of 10 books for parents, teachers, and teenagers including How Rude! The Teen Guide to Good Manners, Proper Behavior, and Not Grossing People Out. A recognized expert on adolescent development, parenting, and substance abuse prevention, Alex’s passion for nurturing healthy kids, healthy families, and healthy schools takes him around the world as a speaker and workshop leader. You can visit his website at www.alexjpacker.com and follow him on Twitter at @HowRudeBook