Ways to dial back on constant family conflict
Beware transitions Level down Cushion your blows Go to the balcony Just. Don't. Say it. But DO say BY BRUCE FEILER, New York Times
I called it the 7:42 p.m. fight. It happened every night when my wife and I gathered to discuss the detritus of our lives. Who's waking up early with the kids? Who's going to take Grandma to the eye doctor? What do you mean you forgot to pick up the milk?
She'd cross her arms and stare at the ceiling. I'd throw up my hands and raise my voice. Finally she'd storm out of the room.
My daughters, meanwhile, developed their own ritualized fights. Your dessert is bigger! It's my day to go first. Liar! Tattletale!
Our house was a combat zone. There must be a better way, I thought.
I've set out on a quest to try to improve how we fight as a family. I took a three-day course from the team at the Harvard Negotiation Project; I invited environmental psychologists to our home to inspect where we sat during spats; I talked to linguists about which words escalate family disputes.
Here's what I learned: All families have conflict; those who control and manage that conflict can make their family happier. Conflict resolution didn't exist as a field when I was growing up, but today a new generation of researchers has isolated tools that can help make peace between battling parties, including sibling and spouses.
You can build a better family argument, one that takes less time, leaves fewer emotional scars and more quickly restores harmony to your household.
Researchers have found that the biggest fights within families erupt when people are either coming together or saying goodbye. Getting children out the door in the morning and reuniting in the evening are particularly vulnerable times. Two psychologists in Chicago, Reed Larson and Maryse Richards, gave beepers to 50 families, pinged them throughout the day and asked how happy they were. The most highly charged period of the day was between 6 and 8 p.m. Men said they were stressed at that time, the researchers found, but they actually enjoyed coming home, while women truly were stressed because it was the brunt of their "second shift" of housework and caretaking. The lesson: wait until everyone is fed, has changed clothes and had some private time.
Your mother was right: posture matters. In my family's classic 7:42 p.m. fight, I was usually seated upright at my desk, surrounded by computer equipment; my wife was six inches lower in an old swivel chair. Sally Augustin, an environmental psychologist in Chicago, was horrified by this arrangement. "Oh, so bad!" she tells me. "You are clearly in the power position." Other power poses include putting your feet up and lacing your fingertips behind your head.
People in these positions have elevated testosterone, reduced cortisol and increased feelings of superiority, she said, while people in low-power poses (slumping, crossing your arms) are defensive and resentful.
It's not just how you sit; it's what you sit on. A study published in 2010 by professors at MIT, Harvard and Yale showed that when people sit on a "hard wooden chair," they are more rigid and inflexible. When they sit on a "soft cushioned chair," they are more accommodating and generous.
As Augustin says, "If you want to talk to your daughters about a tough subject, I would sit on cushioned chairs, because no one will be as doctrinaire and you'll be more open to the opinions of others." When my wife and I recently reviewed our daughters' report cards with them, we chose to sit side by side with them on a padded seat in our bedroom.
But what if you're already in a fight? How do you de-escalate? The Program on Negotiation at Harvard specializes in resolving tricky conflicts, from Israeli-Palestinian peace talks to nuclear test ban treaties. Their signature move: go to the balcony. As Bill Ury, a founder of the group and an author of "Getting to Yes," describes it: "When things are starting to go wrong, imagine the negotiation taking place on a stage. Then allow your mind to go to the balcony overlooking that stage." From there you can see the macro view, begin to calm down and come up with alternatives.
My wife and I have adopted a watered-down version of the Harvard blueprint with our school-age children. When problems erupt, we separate them and allow time to cool off. Then we ask them to come up with three alternatives. Usually they spend the first few minutes insisting theirs is the only option, but eventually they relent. Then we bring them back together. At that point, with so many options on the table, a solution usually emerges quickly.
While hurrying through a fight may be good, steer clear of certain words, or at least one word. Pronouns are the canary in the coal mine of conflict. James Pennebaker, a psychologist at the University of Texas, has found that within couples, using first-person pronouns ("I" or "we") is a sign of a healthy relationship. By contrast, using lots of second-person pronouns -- "You always say that" or "You never do this" -- is a mark of poor problem-solving. To stop fighting, stop saying "you."
I've heard different opinions about forcing people to apologize, especially children. Some say it's necessary; others think it's just piling on. Sheila Heen, an author of "Difficult Conversations," told me that in her household, she favors contrition. "Saying you're sorry has two meanings," she says. "One is to describe how you actually feel. The other is to take responsibility for the impact you've had on somebody else. I'm really more interested in the second meaning: accepting accountability for your choices even if you don't genuinely feel apologetic." Later, she says, when you're less amped up, feeling sorry will come.