Working Through Conflict

The first time I talked with Marilyn privately, we sat in a cozy corner of her parents’ expansive living room. She spoke as though she was confiding in me.

“I’m afraid our family isn’t going to make it,” she said, sounding both resigned and sad. “I’m afraid we’re going to be one of the 70% of families that fail. I’d like to see our family money make it to the third generation, but I don’t think it will. We just don’t know how to work together to make that happen.”

Marilyn was one of four siblings, all in their 40s and all with children of their own. She had enjoyed many good times with her loving family. They had laughed their way through a few dozen Thanksgiving dinners together. They celebrated Christmases and birthdays as one big, happy family. They got together for family events and company parties and played together at their ski retreat in Vail and their vacation home in Hawaii.

They seemed like the perfect, harmonious family.

Then, an economic downturn took its toll on their family business and threatened their personal financial lives by cutting into their annual distributions. Suddenly, the siblings began to disagree on how to address the problem. Should they step away and allow the company managers to do their jobs? Or should they get involved? Marilyn felt it was not appropriate to interfere, while two sib-lings insisted that they had to interfere in order to protect their family business; the fourth was neutral.

In the midst of their disagreements about the problems their family business was facing and the potential effect on their lifestyles, their mother was diagnosed with a serious medical problem. Problems seem to come in multiples. With conflict already brewing, the siblings were again divided, this time on how they thought their mom should be treated. Marilyn believed her recommendations were the best and only way to go.

The family unity that everyone thought was so solid began to weaken.

The two allied siblings said hurtful things to Marilyn. The neutral sibling, Marilyn’s brother, tried to fade away into the background, hoping he would not have to get entangled. Marilyn decided to step away from the family to nurse her wounds, but then felt left out and isolated as the other three moved forward without her.

It’s a sad situation. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon.

The Cause or the Trigger?

As is often the case, there may be one event that explodes the family, but that one event is almost always just the trigger. Typically, the under-lying, unresolved emotional issues have been hiding under the surface just waiting for a spark to set them off.

Marilyn’s siblings had always thought she was controlling. For years, they believed she had been sidling up to their parents, trying to get on the inside track with them, trying to become the favored one, wanting to be the one child who would have authority when her parents became incapacitated or after they were gone.

So, underneath all the happy, frivolous, fun times they spent together as a family, jealousy and distrust had been brewing among the other three siblings. But no one really knew, be-cause the good times covered it up.

The fear of losing money, coupled with the fear of losing their mother, blew the lid off the simmering pot of feelings and severely injured their once positive relationships.

Levels of Conflict

At one time or another, every family has conflicts of varying levels of seriousness. There are four levels of conflict, each one more difficult to resolve than the previous.

Level 1 is simple conflict. Who hasn’t experienced disagreements within relationships? They’re as common as dandelions in springtime. After all, each individual has his or her own opinions, experiences, feelings, and perspectives — and they differ from everyone else’s.

In simple conflict, each person acknowledges the problem, and they work rationally to settle their differences and solve it themselves. Examples include deciding how to invest or allocate your assets, how to deal with a troubled child, where to send your kids to school, and whether you should sell your vacation home. These are all important matters, but they can usually be worked out without an outside person.

In simple conflict, there are differences of ideas and thoughts. But people are not rattled to the core, because, at this level, deeply held beliefs or strong emotions have not been ignited in the two parties. They can work together in logical and sensible ways.

But the next three levels of conflict go deeper than disagreement. Real conflict occurs when two people or two parties feel a threat – to their needs or to a goal they’re trying to meet. It becomes much more person-al and it triggers strong emotions.

Level 2 is complicated conflict. In this kind of conflict, people believe very strongly that they are right and the other person is wrong. They feel this so strongly that they begin to disparage the beliefs of the other person, even demeaning that person’s character to prove how right they are. They become willing to fight for their position and, therefore, often hire an attorney or a mediator to take up their cause.

These kinds of conflicts might include problems such as property line discrepancies with a neighbor, tax issues, divorce, or disputes over legal matters.

Level 3 is complex conflict. This is where many family conflicts lie. This kind of conflict often involves several people simultaneously — most of them with secret agendas, deeply embedded hurts, untold stories, and profoundly strong feelings. There are many moving parts. Those involved often create alliances, pitting one group against another. There are deep-seated jealousies and rivalries that originated in childhood and that have been left to fester for many years. Feelings that were locked away come tumbling out in hurtful words and actions that damage relationships – sometimes beyond repair.

It’s almost impossible to settle these kinds of family conflicts with out outside professional help. The problems are just too complex to un-ravel and resolve without the objective ear of a neutral person.

Level 4 is chaos. Chaos lives on a grand scale – giant organizations in turmoil, countries fighting unrest, rebel groups that try to overthrow their government, or armies that destroy entire cultures. Thankfully, most of us don’t have to deal first-hand with chaos.

Unpacking Conflict

Marilyn and her siblings were stuck in level 3 conflict. They were blocked by their differences, unable to have a rational conversation about their opposing perspectives.

I began by working with Marilyn and her brother — the neutral one, the one toward whom Marilyn felt the least amount of animosity and distrust. We kept the conversation about just the two of them. I set the stage by talking about how conflict feeds on itself.

I explained to Marilyn and her brother what I think is the biggest problem with conflict. When you feel you’ve been hurt, humiliated, demeaned, or taken advantage of by another person, your first response is usually to blame or attack. It’s not your fault, you say to yourself. After all, you’re the victim of the other person’s behaviors. You’ve done nothing wrong. He’s the one who caused your feelings and you’re innocent. Right?

This described Marilyn. She was sure her perspective was right. She became blinded to the notion that she herself could have contributed to the conflict in any way. She began thinking only of herself and her needs, desires, and feelings. In so doing, she quit seeing her siblings as people who also had needs, desires, and feelings. She began to view them only as a barrier to her getting what she wanted.

Unfortunately, her siblings were doing the same thing with Marilyn. She had ceased to become the sister they loved and cared about. She was now only a nuisance – an obstacle to them getting to their goal.

So, they all felt justified in treating each other poorly. The more one of them ignored Marilyn, the more she felt she could ignore them. The more she treated them as though they didn’t matter to her, the more they reciprocated. It became an ugly loop. It fed off itself. Someone had to have the courage to find the exit ramp from the loop.

Finding the Solution

People in conflict want a solution. But the solution is usually to make the other person change. Wouldn’t it be great if every conflict had nothing to do with you? Wouldn’t it be easy if you could sit back and relax while the other person did all the work of making a change? Well, it just doesn’t work like that!

In Marilyn’s case, we spent a short time discussing the actual events that caused the hurt, but in a reasoned way and with non-inflammatory words. I have found that if you don’t let people tell their story or ex-press their feelings, they are unable to let go and move toward resolution. As the facilitator, I was able to set the tone and keep the discussion relatively unemotional and on track.

Next, I asked Marilyn and her brother to state the issue from their own perspective. In a non-emotional and very rational way, Marilyn said she didn’t trust her brother to have her back. She felt like she had been dangling, with no one to send a lifeline. She was hurt because her brother didn’t reach out to her.

It was interesting that the issue for Marilyn was not the events them-selves, but how she felt about those events. It was all about their relationship.

Her brother listened, and I asked him to repeat back what he had heard Marilyn say. After we were sure they had understood each other, I asked him to respond to Marilyn. He said he was glad to hear her perspective of the events that had occurred, and he was sorry he had not been there for her during this hurtful time. He apologized for not sending her a lifeline and wanted to be more cognizant in reaching out to her in the future. The apology helped Marilyn a lot.

Then, it was her brother’s turn. For him, the issue was Marilyn’s controlling behavior. He had always seen her as manipulating the family to get what she wanted, and the recent set of events was one more example of Marilyn taking power and authority for her own benefit. He was hurt by her continual behaviors that seemed to make Marilyn the favorite child in the family, and he didn’t trust that what she did was for the good of all.

After we made sure Marilyn under-stood exactly what the issue was from his perspective, she responded that she could understand why her brother felt the way he did. She acknowledged that her past behaviors could have been construed as being manipulative. She wanted to reposition herself in a more neutral way. She was sorry for how her behaviors had hurt him and caused him not to trust her.

Off the Track and Out of the Loop

One conversation broke the negative loop between Marilyn and her brother. But it’s not over yet. Conflict is not that easy to resolve, especial-ly when multiple people are involved and their feelings have been harbored inside for a long time.

But it begins when at least one person decides to get off the negative track and look at what they could have done to contribute to the conflict. Stubbornly insisting that you’re entirely right and the other person is entirely wrong gets you nowhere and predicts relationship failure.

In fact, people who are actually NOT wrong are usually most willing to consider that they ARE wrong. Being willing to look at yourself, to acknowledge responsibility, and to apologize is a position of strength, not weakness. No conflict can be resolved as long as everyone is convinced that they’re right. Solution is only possible when at least one person is willing to consider that he might be wrong.

In addition, vulnerability builds trust and repairs relationships. When you cling to being right, you may win the battle, but you lose the war. You may think you can hold your head up high and command respect for being correct, but there will be nobody around to notice because you will have lost all your meaningful relationships.

Following Through

Marilyn understands that healing conflict is a process and that she has only just begun. She decided to go one step further. She wrote a letter to all of her siblings acknowledging her part in the family discord, apologizing for hurting them, and expressing her sadness about the family situation. She is waiting for replies, but she feels good that, so far, she has done everything she can to repair the family rift.

Will her family be one of the 70% that fail because of their inability to communicate and work through the tough times? Will the family money be lost by the third generation because family members can’t work together? Perhaps — if they don’t commit to learning the skills needed to repair and renew their relationships.

But if they decide that family is really important — important enough to focus on their family harmony and do the work required to restore, maintain, and grow it — they have a chance to succeed.

Here are some tips for addressing conflict as it arises in your family:

  1. Stay in the present. Don’t focus on the past. Memories and perceptions fade. Solutions are in the now.
  2. Manage your stress. When you operate out of your stress, you can’t hear what the other person is saying.
  3. Be aware of your feelings. And listen for the other person’s feelings.
  4. Be willing to forgive. And to apologize.
  5. Listen first, talk second. Listen, listen, listen. Ask questions for clarification and understanding.
  6. Make sure relationships are your first priority. Your goal is to resolve the conflict while preserving and growing the relationship.

© Joanne Stern, PhD. All rights reserved. Originally published in the Bonner & Partners Family Office Strategic Review, Volume 4, Issue 5, May 2016 •


About the Author:

Joanne K. Stern, PhD, is a family consultant with an extensive background in psychology. She helps families resolve the complex people problems that often tear families apart and destroy harmony, happiness, and sustained financial success. A frequent speaker, keynote presenter, and workshop leader, she has been a guest expert on more than 200 TV and radio shows and has contributed to various newspapers, magazines, and online media.
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