How to deal with family conflict

Do you always end up having the same argument, which ends in the same way? Here are three simple steps to help you to find a new route.

  1. LET IT GO! When we are in a highly emotional state, we tend to make decisions from the emotional part of our brains. This is the part that triggers the ‘fight or flight’ response. It acts quickly and instinctively, but it doesn’t pause to listen to the rational part of our brains. It might be helpful when we accidentally burn ourselves on the stove, but it is not so helpful when our ex has wound us up again. We need to put a pause in place between what they say and our response.

    So step 1 is simply to let go of your emotional response to whatever it is that your ex has done that has wound you up. Of course you are justified in being upset, many people would be in your situation. But not only is it uncomfortable and exhausting to stay in that place of upset, but it tends to fuel the conflict and not deal with it.

    How you choose to do this is up to you. Helpful strategies can be counting to ten, exercise, listening to music, meditation, punching a pillow or simply just gently saying ‘let it go’ to yourself every time you find the argument going round in your head again. There honestly is no one-way or easy way to do this. It just takes time and practice. However, being aware that we are responding emotionally and not rationally (and being able to spot the difference between the two) is the first step.

    If you don’t have a six-year-old daughter who has sung the song ‘Let it Go’ (from the Disney animation, Frozen) so many times that it is etched on your brain forever, then look up a clip on the Internet. Singing it to myself when an issue is swirling in my head seems to add a little lightness to the situation.

    Some issues you may choose to let go of completely. Others you will want to address. But choose your battles. It is simply too exhausting to fight every one and will this one really matter in the long term?

    Sometimes people want to carry on fighting, they don’t want to let the other person ‘win’. But if you are constantly in the same conflict with an ex, is either of you ‘winning’?

    From my mediator’s perspective, I see people who have ‘let go’ of the hurt that their ex has caused and I see people who are still holding tightly onto it and trying with all their might to punish their ex in any way that they can. What is interesting is that the ones holding onto the hurt seem to be hurting themselves much more than they are hurting their ex.

    In JKRowling’s recent film, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Newt Scamander explains: "My philosophy is that worrying means you suffer twice.” The same philosophy applies to letting old hurts and arguments go around and around in your head. It can mean you just go on suffering.

    Eva Mozes Kor was one of the twins used in experiments by Dr Josef Mengele in Auschwitz. She is well known for forgiving her perpetrators and many people find this hard to understand, but she explains, ‘It doesn’t mean I will forget the past, or that I was condoning what they did. It meant I was finally free from the baggage of victimhood.’

    Sometimes, it is important to address the conflict. If you do, make sure you have put a pause between the conflict and your reaction. Consider a bottle of cola and a bottle of still water. Imagine shaking them both vigorously and then opening the lid. You are aiming to get to the place where you are the bottle of still water.

  2. SEEK FIRST TO UNDERSTAND AND THEN TO BE UNDERSTOOD. Step 2 is one of Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. It asks us to listen, really listen, to the other person’s point of view.

    Often, with people we know well, we assume that we know what they are saying without really listening to them. We can be so busy rehearsing our own arguments in our heads that we are not hearing at all. I remember seeing a young couple in high conflict mediation and suggesting that they both took turns to put their point of view while the other listened. After one of them had spent a few minutes explaining their point of view, I turned to the other and asked if they could summarise what they had just heard. The poor person looked shocked and appalled as they replied, ‘Polly, I am sorry, I did not hear a word that was said!’ I admired her honesty because she was simply describing what I see going on in the mediation room all of the time.

    It takes practice to really listen to someone else, especially if his or her views are so different to our own. It means simply being a mirror to them and reflecting back to them what we think they are saying. It means holding back on any attempt to put our own views across or trying to prove that they are wrong and we are right. Understanding someone else’s point of view is not the same as agreeing with it and remembering this can make it easier.

    Listening properly slows down the conversation and opens up possibilities that weren’t immediately apparent. And if it is just too hard to do on your own, a mediator can help.

  3. CHOOSE YOUR RESPONSE. So, you have slept on the issue and feel calm and collected.Then you have either listened to where the other is coming from, or thought about it really hard from their perspective. Now you get to choose how you want to respond.

    Interestingly, many people who get to this stage in mediation find that the solution is easy and obvious. We all know how arguments can flare up over something unimportant but the unimportant often masks the real issue beneath the surface. Once the real issue is understood, it becomes simpler to resolve. For example, a couple were once in mediation arguing about the weekend arrangements for their son. Dad was insistent that he should continue to see his son every Saturday, whilst Mum wanted her children to spend a full weekend with her and then a full weekend with Dad. By slowing down the communication and getting each person to really listen to what the other was saying and teasing out what they were not saying, we discovered that what was most important to Dad was to be able to continue to take his son to football on Saturday mornings. His own Dad had always taken him when he was a boy and it was important that he did the same for his son. Mum didn’t even like football and standing and watching in the rain even less, but did want her children for a full weekend. So the matter was simply resolved by Mum having the children for a full weekend every other weekend whilst Dad continued to take his son to football, while Mum used that time to do something one to one with her daughter. For this family it worked, and everyone was happy.

What will you do next time the same old argument begins?

Polly Gavins runs Abingdon Family Mediation, a mediation service that aims to provide a practical and effective mediation process that is delivered with kindness, respect and understanding.

If you would like to learn more about how to respond to conflict, then get in touch and book in a confidential one to one meeting. You can do this even if you don’t want to proceed to a full mediation meeting. Call Polly on 0770 651 3496 or email