siblings in conflict

I spent this summer vacation engaging in and attempting to observe family conflict. This “fieldwork” was challenging to say the least. It required me to take a helicopter view, even when I was emotionally involved. I set out to better understand why it is that we struggle to meet the essential extended holiday longings we all share, like:

Needs underlying vacation strategy

Why is it that despite each of us very much wanting these things, they can be so hard to obtain on a regular basis? Why do irritations, frustrations and conflict get in our way? Here I share some of the things I learned, including what helped us feel fulfilled despite the daily mishaps.

Distinguishing between “Why” vs. “How”
It’s a really important distinction . . . WHY we go on vacation include very basic longings like the five listed above. HOW we take vacation varies in at least a million different ways. It’s so very personal. I envision the total absence of a plan—just a stack of books, a journal, a hammock, all in a lush, warm mountain setting with cool streams. My Dutch husband has adventure on his mind: exploring all aspects of a new culture, preferably one near a beach with windsurfing equipment. The kids want fairly constant fun and exciting entertainment, preferably provided by others and electronic gadgets. Could we differ any more in the ways in which we prefer to enjoy, find ease, experience harmony, relax and get recharged? Before we even leave the house, we’re already experiencing differences and potential conflict. Somehow each year we work it out by fitting in a range of all strategies—in what we think is a win-win-win solution.

Why all the Conflict?
Despite our well thought-out vacation plans, conflict finds its way into our every day. Here’s the process I saw happening over and over:

I.   Conflict happens as a result of simple DIFFERENCES, e.g. of opinions, behavior, attitude, expectations

II.  Someone gets triggered with a resulting feeling of DISAPPOINTMENT, FRUSTRATION, ANGER

III. He/she utters a DISTANCING EXPRESSION typically in one of these 4 forms:

  1. judgment
  2. demand
  3. blame
  4. comparison

Two Major Learnings
During this summer vacation, I experienced or witnessed each of these distancing expressions on a daily basis. I felt amazed at how deeply rooted this distancing process is in our language. We (humans across the world) have simply been raised with and well trained in it. It’s rather tragic actually, because what we’re doing is reacting to what we don’t like, without expressing what we actually want. Here are my two major takeaways:

  1. Experiencing differences is inevitable and almost constant. We don’t have to engage in distancing conflicts if we learn a new way to deal with our differences.
  2. Staying curious about what is driving each other can make a tremendous difference—from this place we can learn about what each other really wants and seek clear, doable agreements. The way I find this works best is by making empathic guesses about underlying drivers.

What follows are example conflicts from my summer, including the first two distancing expressions and how empathy came to the rescue . . .

Distancing language of judgment

Distancing language of demands

What you can do differently
From my learnings, I believe we can all be more conscious about the following steps:

  1. Recognize that when you experience a difference with someone, it doesn’t mean they are wrong and you are right. You just differ from one another . . . TRY to make observations about that instead of judgment calls.
  2. When you manage to stay out of the “right vs. wrong” framework, you can much more easily remain curious about what is driving the person who did something that triggered you. It is helpful to make empathic guesses not only to him/her, but also to yourself. “What’s really important for him/her/me in this situation?”)
  3. Focusing on underlying drivers (the WHY) instead of behavioral strategies (the HOW) goes a very long way toward mutual understanding and even compassion.
  4. From this place of getting what each other really wants, you can much more easily seek clear, doable agreements.
  5. If down the road, an agreement isn’t met, just start over with step 1 and repeat.