Tips for Preventing and Resolving Conflict at Family Gatherings

Many of us have immediate and extended family with beliefs and opinions that differ from our own, making for stressful gatherings when we come together under one roof for holidays, graduations, weddings, funerals or just a weekend reunion. Oriana Noël Lewis has been a mediator with Dispute Resolution Center of Thurston County for 17 years and a training manager for seven years. Lewis says that while family gatherings can be challenging, there are many tips she can offer on how to prevent and resolve conflicts so your family time can be more enjoyable for everyone.

Dispute Resolution Center of Thurston County
Oriana Noël Lewis is Training Manager and a mediator with the Dispute Resolution Center, which helps individuals, families and organizations prevent and resolve conflict.

Preventing Conflict

#1 – Be Anchored in Your Values

Lewis says that if you are secure in your own values, it doesn’t matter if someone else approves of them. They become your “internal home” as she calls it. This can give you a piece of mind about who you are without feeling the need to defend yourself.

Lewis gives the example of a brother and sister. The sister values equity and the brother values freedom. If the sister is secure in her own beliefs, she is free to appreciate him for his own values because she is comfortable with her own. “The brother having his opinions or beliefs doesn’t challenge his sister’s,” she explains.

#2 – Don’t Take it Personally 

It’s easy to take everything someone says to heart, but Lewis says we need to do the exact opposite if we want to avoid conflict. “It can feel very personal when a family member comes at you because they have your best interest at heart,” Lewis says. “But it’s not about you. What people say is a reflection of who they are – not a reflection of who you are.”

Resources for Resolving Conflict:

Dispute Resolution Center

“Stanford Forgiveness Project” by Fred Luskin

Crucial Conversations by Patterson, Grenny, et al.

#3 – You’re Responsible for Managing Your own Feelings

We often come away from a family gathering feeling like we were attacked, bullied or harassed. But it’s a choice we make. “These are really all just ways of saying, ‘I feel in pain,’ but we are trying to blame somebody else for our emotional experiences,” she says. “We are saying, ‘You are wrong for what you did,’ instead of ‘I am hurting.’ So we need to take responsibility for our feelings.”

In the prior example, if the brother says, “Equity is a stupid value to have,” the sister can respond, “Ouch, it hurts to hear that.” This, Lewis says, is better than saying you feel attacked. “‘Attacked’ is not a feeling. It’s a way of blaming someone else for your emotional experience,” she adds.

#4 – Be Curious

Ask your family what’s new for them. What’s important to them? “If we get curious about each other, rather than being so invested in telling who we are, we can soften in empathy and love for one another,” Lewis says. “I think that curiosity can go really far.”

Lewis notes that if the other person will not step up and engage in the conversation, then you need to speak up and say something like, “Thanks for telling me about yourself, are you open to hearing about what interests me?”

#5 – Don’t Go to the Hardware Store for Bread

family conflict
Family gatherings can be a source of connection and joy as well as tension. Using these tips from Oriana Lewis can help. Photo courtesy: Dispute Resolution Center of Thurston County

This is one of Lewis’s own gems. Lewis gives the example of the aging aunt or uncle who is very set in their ways. “You can’t expect someone like that to meet your needs of the ‘doting aunt,’” she says. “Rather than shaming or blaming her for that, you just need to ‘not go the hardware store for bread.’ You need to not try to get from her what she is not capable of giving.”

Lewis says this may come from holding expectations of what certain family members – the father, the mother, the sibling, the aunt – are supposed to act like as well.

#6 – Simply Say, “You may be right.”

If you run into a situation where someone is not budging, an easy way to dissuade the conversation is to simply say, “You may be right.” It’s a good way to end a conversation before conflict erupts.

Resolving Conflict

#1 – Calm Your Own System
This is Lewis’s version of the old “count to ten” when you feel yourself getting mad or upset. “Our first inclination is to do that flight or fight,” say Lewis. “We are responsible for our emotional and our physiological responses. This is a great time to keep your mouth closed – rehashing just exacerbates your own response.”

Instead, breathe, don’t retell the story in your head or to another family member, where you are likely to either make yourself the victim, the warrior or the angel.

3 Golden Questions for Resolving Conflict
What’s your greatest concern?
What do you most want me to understand?
What do you most want to have happen?

#2 – Get Curious Again

“If I am telling the story in such a way that I am the victim, warrior or martyr, I am making myself either superior or inferior to the people who just want to love me,” Lewis explains. This doesn’t make it easier on anyone.

Instead, we need to get curious and find out why someone is saying what they are saying. Are they saying it just to get a rise out of you? “We need to tell ourselves, ‘I am adult, I am equal and I am capable of having a conversation with someone with a differing opinion using respect and dignity,’” she explains.

#3 – Ask if They Are Willing to Converse

Lewis suggests saying something like, “We clearly have a different opinion, but I have a lot of faith in your ability to have this conversation with me, are you up for that?” And then actually having the conversation where both sides show respect and you genuinely ask them where their opinions are coming from.

#4 – Acknowledge Your Part    

This means stepping up and saying when you’ve wronged the other person. For example, if you already flew of the handle, you need to own up. “You need to say something like, “I was feeling hurt and I ended up trying to put myself above you and that’s not right, can I try again?’” explains Lewis. “Every time we role model this, we are giving the other person a chance to step up and do the same. We have to claim our own responsibility in the conflict.”

gift experience olympia
Taking a walk, getting fresh air, exercise and a bit of space, can go a long way to helping your remain calm.

#5 – Love in Action

This means doing something like shoveling the driveway or the washing dishes to show you love your family. “Some sort of love in action can go along way for some people to resolve or prevent conflict. There are times when some are not willing to have a direct conversation or have avoidance strategies and these are things that Lewis says we should honor. Instead, look for ways to perform love in action.

Going for a meditative walk, going to the gym or doing yoga are also a great way to take a break if needed. And remember, at the end, you will be going home – a reminder that can keep you calm.

Above all, Lewis says to remember that your family is trying to check if you are happy, safe and loved. If you can come to your family gatherings, secure in your beliefs, willing to listen to what interests them and able to be respectful, your family time will be much more enjoyable, not just for you but for anyone under the roof.

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