Managing conflict

Maybe 'I Do'
Kevin Andrews
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- April 28, 2013

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.

BEWARE TRANSITIONS 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.

LEVEL DOWN 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 told 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. Her advice: everybody in a meaningful conversation should sit at the same level, with the same posture. Sitting alongside the other person has also been shown to increase collaboration.

CUSHION YOUR BLOWS It’s not just how you sit; it’s what you sit on. A study published in 2010 by professors at M.I.T., 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 Ms. Augustin said, “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.

GO TO THE BALCONY 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,” described 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.

Mr. Ury calls this technique of generating alternatives “moving the spotlight.” As he told me: “You want to move the spotlight from the rigid positions both sides are starting with to new options you come up with together. The goal is to expand the pie before dividing it.”

THE THREE-MINUTE RULE My wife has a habit of suing for peace too quickly in disputes. This usually leaves me frustrated: “Wait, I have seven more points I want to make.” Not surprisingly, her instincts are right. John Gottman of the University of Washington has found that the most important points in any argument can be found in the opening minutes. After that, people repeat themselves at higher and higher decibels. Just as boxers fight for only three minutes per round, couples can do the same. Say your piece, then heed Mr. Ury’s advice: call for a five-minute break or take a short walk.

THE ONE WORD YOU SHOULD NEVER SAY 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.”

THE ONE WORD YOU SHOULD ALWAYS SAY 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 said. “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 said, when you’re less amped up, feeling sorry will come.

Nearly every aspect of family life has taken advantage of new knowledge, from not smoking during pregnancy to wearing bike helmets to giving children time to play. Today, a similar body of research is emerging that can allow us to fight smarter. As Mr. Ury put it: “Conflict is always going to be part of your lives. The question becomes, ‘Can you have conflict cooperatively?’ We think of conflict as driving us apart, but if you engage in it correctly, it can actually bring us closer together.”

Bruce Feiler’s latest book, “The Secrets of Happy Families,” was recently published.

Source: Bruce Feiler, New York Times, April 12, 2013