“I wonder what it’s like to be married to you…” I turned. The workshop participant was behind me, to the side, looking thoughtful, pensive, and curious. It wasn’t a pick-up, but a pondering.
I have taught conflict resolution skills for 20 years and it’s a question I occasionally get asked. While all my training is workplace-related, the application in the home is immediately obvious. And it’s a fair question: What is it like to be married to a conflict resolution expert? Does he use his skills at home or does he keep them at work?
So I asked my wife. She said that because I have the skills “No problem we have is too big,” and that she knows I will handle all of the kids’ disputes.
With a thumbs up from my wife, I thought I would share how I have emphasized some workplace conflict resolution skills and modified others when working through conflict with my wife and four kids. Maybe it will enrich your family like I believe it has enriched mine. I have listed them in order of importance.
1. Maintain the Relationship
While conflict resolution skills have become a part of my relationships, all the skills in the world don’t make up for spending time with each person, doing something that benefits that person. Doing this increases trust; not doing it leads to distrust. I try to do this with each person every day, and fail – but I still think it’s the right goal for me.
What I’m thinking
I have to be mindful of what I think of everyone. Sure I love them, but there are times when every person in my family does something I believe to be idiotic. When I’m thinking someone is at all less than me, it comes out in my words, tone, gestures and facial expressions. John Gottman, who is able to predict the success or failure of marriage 10 years into the future with an incredible 94% accuracy, says contemptuous behaviours are the number one predictor of spousal failure – even when the contemptuous behaviour is so subtle a novice wouldn’t know it was there.
2. They Talk First
My number two skill is that if a family member who disagrees with me:
- They talk first while I listen without interruption
- I paraphrase and ask if there’s anything else
No matter what happens from that point on, the people in my family know they have a voice with me.
I just run into problems when I don’t want them to have a voice – because I believe I know more, because I think they are wasting my time, because I start thinking, This kid has had way too much leeway already, because I’m rushed. But time listening is rarely wasted while time interrupting so frequently is.
Multiple-choice vs. open-ended questions
I teach open-ended questions for work, but the practice of asking them is culturally unusual and requires work for the person answering. Kids get confused. In situations where I think my family member won’t understand my usual open-ended questions, I use multiple-choice questions.
For example, it’s a short bus ride for our junior and senior highers to get home from school, so that’s what we expect them to do. For my wife, there are many exceptions to this rule – some of which I agree with, some I don’t, and some I’ll comply with just to please her. So when she asks me to drop what I’m doing to pick up the kids, I want to understand the situation first. Instead of saying “Say a bit about why you think we should pick up the kids today,” or the trusty “What’s important about picking up the kids right now?”, both of which can get her defensive (after all, we have had arguments about this in the past), I can list off the best, most recent reasons she has had me pick up the kids from school and ask her to respond: “Are you asking me to pick up the kids because they’re tired, carrying things or something else?”
3. Be a Temporary, Neutral Advocate
I used to follow a regular mediation process at home and still do sometimes, but it’s way too involved for home life. One thing I have started to do to fast-track things but still stay in the mediator role is to neutrally explain Person A’s underlying needs, right in front of Person A and Person B.
For example, this morning we were aghast to find that our new puppy had pooed and peed on our carpet – again! No one was more upset than my wife, who had told my 17-year-old daughter last night at 11:00 that she was going to bed and painstakingly informed her that if she insisted on playing with the dog, she must put it in the kennel before she went to bed. She forgot, and our wall-to-wall carpet was soiled, so my wife confronted her. My daughter, who has suffered from anxiety, was getting overwhelmed and shutting down. I pointed this out to my wife, but my wife had a problem: she was upset and wasn’t calming down. She couldn’t hold back from making comments, and it was kick-starting my daughter’s sympathetic nervous system. As a mediator, I’m trained to either call a break to the conversation or slow it down, but we were all rushing through our breakfast to make it to school and work on time.
I couldn’t stop my wife but I needed to help my daughter collect herself without coming across like I was protecting her from mom. So as I drank my spinach smoothie I explained: “Your mom needs a chance to work through her feelings at this point. She’s disappointed because now she has to figure out if she can trust you in the future. If she can’t, that means more work for her.”
This seemed to allow everyone to focus and get on with the task of getting into the van.
Taking my homework to work
Honing my conflict resolution skills at home has had an interesting pay-off. Yesterday I was with a client who I sensed might struggle to answer some of my open-ended questions, so I switched to multiple-choice and the conversation flowed easily. I have to thank my wife and four kids tonight. Having them has done more than giving me a chance to practice my skills – it’s given me new ones.
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