All Families Fight. Learn to Fight Smarter, with Bruce Feiler

All families fight -- it's just a fact of life. The highest functioning families are the ones that manage conflict best.

Bruce Feiler: Let’s talk about fighting. All families fight. All families have conflict. Successful families actually limit it and move on to actually building positive memories. So how do you do that. I took a three day course from the folks at the Harvard Negotiation Project thinking they work with Israelis and Palestinians and general strikes and emerging markets – let’s find out what they know to bring peace. And this changed a lot about how my wife and I fight. We used to have what I call a 742 fight every night. The kids would be down and we would talk about who’s picking up the milk. Who’s buying the tickets for vacation. And it would always just end in a muddle with my wife storming out of the room.

And what I learned was a number of things. First of all I changed when we have these conversations. Highest stress time in families is between six and eight at night. So 7:42 p.m., the worst time you can have one of these fights.

So we no longer have difficult conversations during this period. Second, I changed where we fight. I would be at my desk surrounded by my computer equipment, up high. My wife would be lower. She’d have her arms crossed, resentful. Turns out I was in the power position. So now when we have difficult conversations we sit at the same level. We actually – if we’re having a really difficult conversation have moved to our bedroom to a bench that we have that’s cushioned because research shows that if you’re sitting on a cushioned bench you’ll be more open. Alongside each other you’ll be collaborative. Across from each other, more confrontational.

The point is there’s all these new ideas out there about reducing conflict so let’s bring them into families. Some may be right for your family, some may not but I’d be surprised if you couldn’t fight smarter after reading some of these tips. For example, one thing – the worst thing you can say in a fight? Is it I? Is it we? Is it you? Or is it your mother? Your mother may not be great but you turns out to be the worst thing you can say in a fight. “You always do this.” “You never do that.” Speak about yourself. Speak about us as a couple. If you want to stop fighting, stop saying you.

So let’s talk about things that can go wrong in families. Even if the adults are fighting smarter, the kids are probably getting into a lot of disputes. And they seem incredibly petty to parents. But the truth is even those petty discussions and, in my house, it can be socks. In your house it might be who’s staying up later. It might be who’s getting to sit in what chair. So here’s what I’ve learned. A simple three-step process that can reduce sibling fighting.

Number one, separate them. They’re in the middle of the conflict – separate them. Give everyone a chance to calm down and reflect a little – not only on what the other person did but on what they did. Step two – and this is the most important one. Have kids come up with two or three alternatives.

Usually the first one is gonna be the one that they’ve come up with and they may stick to that for a few minutes. But after a while they’ll come up with two or three alternatives. Then you bring the siblings back together. At that point there’s four or five alternatives on the table and nine times out of ten, one of those alternatives overlaps with another and the kids are beginning to solve the problem.

Again, the key here is to give your kids the tools that they need to solve the problems themselves. I used to think, “Oh, don’t be referee. Let the kids solve the problems.” But the truth is you need to teach them the skills. You can’t just expect them to learn it. Teach them the skills so they can solve the problems when you’re not around.

All families have conflict. Successful families actually limit it and move on to building positive memories. Bruce Feiler explains strategies for avoiding conflict, managing strife, negotiating peace, and controlling fighting between siblings.

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