By: Judi Brownell
You politely end the conversation when a salesperson tries to convince you to purchase a timeshare condo. You have no problem walking away when a stranger wants you to give him a ride, or saying “no” to a server who tries to up-sell you drinks at a restaurant. You feel confident, able to make good choices and assert yourself appropriately when the occasion warrants. And then . . . there are your parents. Your interactions with them are another story.
Conflict is a part of every relationship, but when disagreements occur in the family they can become particularly upsetting and stressful. Emotions are more on the surface and more readily escalate. People who care about each other often find the most difficulties communicating and balancing their needs with the demands of a family member. While conflict among siblings and between husband and wife are commonplace, perhaps the most difficult situation is when you find yourself confronting an elderly parent—especially if he is often defiant.
It’s likely that you are experiencing conflict on two levels, interpersonal—with your parent—and intrapersonal, conflicting messages in your head, your “self-talk” about what you should do or say to resolve the situation. As long as your internal voice is active and you are experiencing a dilemma, you will likely feel stressed and upset.
It might help to keep in mind that your parent—or another person—doesn’t make you stressed or upset or hurt. It’s not like someone dumps a pail of water on you and makes you wet. You are the only one in control of your emotions and, therefore, your goal is to find strategies that prevent you from “making yourself” react in negative and potentially harmful ways to the situation. What you do need to do is to explore approaches to resolving the conflict that you believe are reasonable and effective.
First, determine whether a particular conflict is important enough to pursue. Some conflicts are inevitable and so insignificant that the best approach is to just “get on with it.” In other cases, the conflict recurs because of a personality characteristic, the result of a medical condition, or a long-standing habit. In the majority of cases, avoiding conflict and suppressing your feelings can strain your relationship. Your goal, then, is to find a course of action while recognizing the limitations and opportunities in each situation.
Regardless of how you decide to address the conflict, it is important to first empathize. Identify what your parent is feeling and try to understand her perspective. In some cases, an older parent is argumentative or obstinate because they fear they are losing control of their lives. It may not be that they even care about the outcome of a particular issue as much as they want to feel they have choices and can influence their own destiny. Consider whether a particular incident is isolated, or whether the symptoms that make a given conflict apparent are the culmination of a prolonged series of events. Explore the factors that may be contributing to your parent’s unreasonable demands so you can put the current conflict in perspective.
Reassure your parent that you love them, that you understand how difficult it is for them, that you want to listen to their ideas. Then do it—listen, even if you have heard the same message many times before. Sometimes, by focusing on the positive and not allowing yourself to be consumed by negative and stressful thoughts, you can behave in ways that facilitate a more positive and healthy relationship.
It’s likely that you, too, have a habitual response to conflicts with your parent—a way that you tend to respond repeatedly to similar situations. One way that researchers think about reactions to conflict is to categorize behaviors into five types of response. Review the following approaches to conflict and see if you can determine which ones you use most frequently when your parent becomes demanding or difficult.
Avoiding: Do you try not to directly confront issues with your parent? Do you ignore the problem and not address it, or change the subject if it arises? Do you tell yourself, “If I can just make it through this situation I’ll be okay”?
Accommodating: Do you repeatedly give in to your parent’s demands even when it is a hardship or when it conflicts with your personal needs? Do you make excuses to yourself like, “Well, they’ve been through a lot? I should do whatever makes them happy”?
Competing: Do you get into conflicts with your parent where you feel one person “wins” and one “loses”? Do you feel upset following an argument or conflict regardless of who ultimately gets his or her way?
Compromising: Do you give in a little to your parent’s demands but create a situation where neither you nor your parent really feel good about the outcome? You sometimes feel that you sacrificed more than you gained in the solution?
Collaborating: Did you and your parent adopt a partnership approach to problem-solving whereby you exchanged ideas and feelings so that a range of solutions could be considered? While it’s unlikely that this approach is always possible, keeping it in mind can help you assess the effectiveness of how you do end up resolving disagreements.
There is no “best” response for all conflict situations but, given a particular conflict, some behaviors and approaches are more appropriate and effective than others. Sometimes what is required is just a change—identify how you generally respond from the five styles described above, and then simply try something different. Remember that some of these patterns were likely developed when you were a child, so they may be hard to break at first! There’s a useful quote that highlights this point:
“If you always do what you always did, you always get what you always got.” (Anonymous)
While you might at first think about conflict as something negative, if addressed in a positive, constructive manner it can foster healthy relationships and open paths to better understanding. Remember that suppressed conflict, on the other hand, leads to hurt feelings and continuous stress.
In addition to identifying your conflict style, keep in mind that your goal is to create a non-threatening environment while addressing, not avoiding, the issues that arise. Some of the following suggestions may help you to identify positive approaches and to facilitate productive conversations with your parent.
Fostering Positive Behavior when Conflicts with a Parent Arise
- Identify and articulate a shared goal, i.e. “We want you to have as much freedom as possible but you also need to be safe.” Articulate any desired outcomes that you share.
- Visualize a realistic positive outcome and identify your needs in the situation.
- Actively listen so you can empathize with your parent—try to put yourself in his or her situation and verbalize your concern, i.e., “I know you feel frustrated when you aren’t able to do some of the things you enjoy.”
- Keep your voice and nonverbal communication calm and focused.
- Keep the focus on the one issue at hand—try not to allow the conversation to expand to other topics or problems.
- Avoid trigger words or blame-centered messages like, “You always . . .”
- Consider options and creative approaches. Often we fall into patterns of problem-solving that default to the most convenient or easy solution.
- Always be respectful.
The time you spend with your parents is precious. The more tools you have available to create positive experiences the more likely your time together will be enriching and enjoyable for both of you.
Judi is Compass Care’s Director of Hospitality and Client Care and a Professor of Organizational Communication in the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell University Johnson College of Business. She was previously president of the International Listening Association and developed training programs for hospital staff in customer service.