There are a lot of kinds of conflict, but some of the very worst are the kind that occur in families. Why is this?
A long history of interacting in ways that don’t work, family members who are totally closed to change, lack of self-awareness and self-understanding, and fear are among the things that can maintain patterns of conflict for years on end.
Psychology teaches us that all behavior is motivated. That is to say, from that perspective, everything we do comes from some reason, some conscious or unconscious place within. If people behave unreasonably, there is a cause for their behavior.
Knowing that may not change a thing about family conflict, but it can help us deal with it a little better. Dealing with family conflict is essential as our elders age and family members have to step up and make decisions about aging parents.
In our practice of elder mediation, fear seems to be the single biggest motivator that drives the conflicts we see. It can be fear around money, or control, or change. It can be fear of being found out, exposed. It can be fear of being asked to do something one is not competent or willing to do.
Fear is one of the most basic of human emotions, but it’s one that causes extreme self-protective reactions. These reactions sometimes come out in strong words, violent behavior, or generally hostile contact with others.
Mediators work to help participants at mediation find ways to agree and to make compromises. The stronger a participant’s fear, the more difficult it is for that person to give in to anything, or to make agreements that touch upon his or her fear.
What can we do about all this? Perhaps we can start by recognizing that no one enjoys being horribly difficult at mediation or any time. Behaving badly is simply what shows on the outside. What just might be on the inside is a person frightened of losing control, security, money, the family home, an inheritance, the right to make decisions, or anything.
Compassion and understanding can do a lot to uplift the process of working with persons who are showing their worst side in a dispute. It does not change the difficult person’s behavior, but it can cause the whole tone of a mediation to soften.
Understanding that emotion feeds conflict can cause one to step back and try to imagine what it is like to be the person who is acting out.
If one is able to imagine that, to “walk in someone else’s shoes” for the moment, it makes it a lot easier to compromise or try to figure out what would work for that difficult person. I guess you can call it being a little less selfish in a dispute.
It works. This is a general concept, and can apply to any kind of conflict. Difficult as it is to see the other’s side of the story in any clash of ideas, working at doing just that is essential to getting things resolved.
If we are willing to put forth the effort to stop thinking of only our own point of view, our disputes could be over with, or at least down to a workable level. Were we all able to see past the specifics of a family conflict to the underlying emotions we would surely be more peaceful.
You can learn more about family conflicts and how we can handle them here.