Conflict is a part of life. Actually, it is an important part of life. While many people think that conflict is destructive, the truth is that when done effectively, conflict can make relationships stronger. Many adults don’t know what constitutes “effective conflict,” however. Until recently, we have simply seen conflict as something negative and to be avoided. There are few, if any, available classes in how to use conflict or how to resolve it. This leaves conflict with limited outcomes: deny it, avoid it, defend against it, or escalate it. None of those outcomes are desirable. This post takes a look at how effective conflict works and how to help our kids (and maybe ourselves!) learn from it.
Consider some of these positive outcomes of conflict: It helps us determine and clarify our needs, it helps us set boundaries, it teaches us empathy and consideration of others, and, when successfully resolved, it helps us feel closer to people.
Let’s say that Juan and Robert are playing on the playground. Juan sets down his ball and picks up a different toy. Robert, noticing that Juan has finished playing with the ball, picks it up to play with it. Suddenly, Juan sees Robert playing with “his” ball and goes over to take it back. An argument ensues. Juan says, “I was going to play with that again!” and Robert responds, “You were not! You were done playing with it!” We can all imagine the back-and-forth that might take place, perhaps escalating to a physical fight. However, this event provides an excellent opportunity for Juan and Robert to learn about conflict.
When Juan’s parent learns about the conflict on the playground, she can sit down with him to process the incident. Ideally, after Juan finishes telling his recollection of what happened, his parent validates for him the difficulty and frustration of his experience. She avoids the trap of trying to “solve” the situation—which, of course, can’t be solved at this point since it is in the past—or taking sides against Robert. She avoids telling Juan what he or Robert did “wrong” in the situation. Instead, she can focus on Juan’s feelings about the situation, again validating those feelings no matter what they are. (For example, “I can see that you felt really angry with Robert” or “I recognize that you felt really sad and hurt when you wanted to have the ball back and Robert wouldn’t give it to you.”) Then, she might point out to Juan that his strong feelings are his body’s way of sending him a signal that something is not okay. It is important that she not validate his “right” to take back the ball, but instead recognizes his feelings.
At this point, the focus will move to what lessons can be learned from the situation. In identifying the lessons, it is important to introduce or reinforce the idea of empathy. It is not just about asking Juan how he felt about the situation; it is also about asking Juan how he thinks Robert felt. Juan’s parent might ask him if he has ever felt the way Robert did. Usually, a child will be able to relate to his own experience of another’s feelings. If not, parents can discuss and identify some feelings from their own perspectives, giving children ideas about how “someone” might feel in that situation. Juan’s parent can then ask him, “Have you ever felt that way?” It is helpful to discuss children’s feelings in basic terms in order to minimize the chances for misunderstandings. For example, words like mad, sad, afraid, or hurt will be easier for children to discuss than more complex feelings (disappointment, confusion, or frustration).
The key to the lesson is to understand one’s own feelings as well as to relate to how the other person might be feeling. Being able to “walk a mile” in others’ shoes begins the process of successful conflict resolution. This concept of understanding or empathizing with others may seem too ambitious for younger children, but studies have indicated that children as young as two or three can demonstrate an understanding and appropriate response to how someone else feels.
Once children are able to demonstrate that they can grasp how another person is feeling, it is possible to resolve a conflict through that understanding. Once Juan can identify some of the feelings that Robert may have, he may also be able to identify reasons why Robert might not want to give back the ball or reasons why he, Juan, might not want to give it back if he were in Robert’s position. This provides an excellent foundation from which to discuss other ways to handle the situation.
An important tip: Conflict behavior always has fear as the basic underlying issue, so getting Juan to talk about what Robert might be afraid of will help him understand Robert more effectively than will having him focus on Robert’s anger. Juan might say that Robert didn’t want to give back the ball because he wanted to make sure that he got a chance to play with it (fear of missing a turn). Or Juan might hypothesize that Robert doesn’t like him and that’s why he got angry over the ball (fear of not being liked). Talking about fear as the universal force that it is draws Juan and Robert closer to each other in the experience (both were fearing that they wouldn’t get their turn with the ball). It helps them see that they aren’t so different and that they both want the same thing (to have fun with the ball).
From here, we can ask Juan to think about cooperative solutions that will keep everyone from fearing that they will be left out or not liked. Juan can be encouraged to talk about it with Robert (with adult supervision, depending on the age of the participants) or to simply keep this in mind for the next time. Successfully resolving their conflict and increasing their understanding of each other can allow Juan and Robert to repair their friendship or help it get stronger.
The existence of fear in conflict is universal. Recognizing that fear is the basis of conflict and that empathy is the basis of successful conflict resolution is key. Everyone knows what it is like to feel fear. Even if we don’t agree with someone else’s fear, we can relate to the experience of being afraid. It is important to learn how to recognize and express our fear, but it doesn’t matter whether you disclose the actual fear to the other person. It does matter that you can recognize that other people experience fear, too, and that is why they sometimes act the way they do. Empathy clears the way for compassion, and from the position of compassion and understanding, positive conflict resolution is possible.
Lauren Murphy Payne, MSW, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in private practice with 30 years of experience. She specializes in the treatment of adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse, relationship issues, anxiety, depression, and eating disorders. Lauren has been a speaker at local, regional, and national conferences. She is the author and presenter of two video series: Making Anger Work for You and Anger as a Fear Driven Emotion. She is the mother of two adult children and lives in Wisconsin with her husband.
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