CHAPTER 1: The Conflict Resolution Model
Tired of yelling, arguing, slamming doors? Had enough snapping, sarcasm, and angry retorts? Discouraged because nothing gets settled? Afraid someone will get hurt? Depressed by silence, avoidance, lack of intimacy, and resentment?
It doesn't have to be this way. You can change your family's well-worn patterns of dealing with conflict, and you can teach your child a better way.
I remember years ago I was treating a young boy who had a tendency to overreact to nearly everything, crying and having a tantrum over what should have been small annoyances. I encouraged him to think of phrases he could say to himself as an early reaction to a situation, phrases to calm himself. These phrases would replace the reflexive angry thoughts that had been his typical first reaction in the past. I suggested "no big deal," "whatever,"relax," " chill," "no sweat," and other expressions. Then I asked him to pick a favorite phrase. He thought a second and came up with his own:
"No biggy piggy!"
We had a good laugh. I enjoyed the vision of a laid-back pig in a hammock sipping lemonade. The child resolved to try to use this expression a, a better way to think before reacting to minor aggravations.
Not long afterwards, when I was treating an adult with a self-admitted tendency to overreact in anger, I told him about the child's "no biggy piggy" technique. The man adopted the phrase as his own reminder and found that it helped him. One day he brought me a stuffed animal as a gift, a pig with "No Biggy Piggy" painted on its bib. I displayed the pig in my office and have passed on the phrase to many people. Consequently, my office now has a large collection of pigs stuffed pigs, ceramic pigs, nested pigs, laid-back pigs of every size and description that people have brought me to join company with the original "No Biggy Piggy."
The "No biggy piggy" story is just one small example of changes in thinking that people of any age can make so that anger doesn't get in the way of resolving a problem.
One of the greatest gifts you can give your child is a set of attitudes and skills that allows him to manage his anger well and find a solution to conflict. If your child can resolve conflict well, he can have genuine intimacy, better overall physical and emotional health, improved productivity, and in general a happier, more meaningful life.
Children need to develop a mindset that favors peace, not by avoiding conflict nor by winning through intimidation, but by resolving conflict with others.
It is possible to teach your child...
- that the important thing, for both adults and children, is to shift from thinking that anger is about who's right, who's wrong, or who's to blame, to thinking of anger as a "signal" emotion a signal to resolve a problem.
- to recognize reflexive first thoughts when angry and to replace them with more appropriate thoughts.
- to learn perspective by asking oneself, "How big a deal is this really?"
- an by empathizing with the other person's point of view.
- how to "out-mature" the other person rather than "out-power" him.
- that admitting what you are doing wrong in a conflict is empowering, not losing.
- that conflict has two aspects: what the disagreement is about (content)
- and how you're going to handle it (process).
- that resolution has two aspects: a practical solution to the problem and a "resolved feeling." You have resolution when you have a plan to solve the problem that made you angry in the first place and when both people genuinely feel better towards each other.
So how do you teach these concepts to your child? How do you make them a real part of your child's life?
For years in my family psychiatry practice, I've used a three-part model of conflict resolution as a teaching tool and as a way to assess where children and parents have significant problems in managing anger and conflict. Many families have learned to resolve conflict better using this method. It's my belief that you, too, can experience success using the model, the teaching methods, and the age-appropriate language presented in detail in this book.
And what is success? If your child has a significantly better attitude towards resolving conflict or changes even one behavior pattern for the better, you have reason to celebrate. Better attitudes are contagious; better behavior leads to more goodwill.
Here then are the three parts of the conflict resolution model:
Thinking appropriate thoughts before speaking or acting in anger is so critical and so often neglected that I call Part One of the three-part conflict resolution model "The Thinking Steps." The Thinking Steps not only help hold off the impulsive, angry behavior that could jeopardize reconciliation but also allow the angry person to become more open to resolving the conflict. Thinking things through is also respectful to the other person. After doing The Thinking Steps well, you will be less defensive, clearer in your ideas, and ready to empathize, solve the problem, and forgive.
Part Two, "The Talk/Listen Steps," is more interactive than introspective, although, of course, you still must think appropriately as you talk and listen You state the problem as you see it, in resolvable terms. Then you really listen ten while the other fellow states his perspective. Both of you listen to and appreciate the other person's point of view.
Finally, we have Part Three, "The Solving Steps." This is the part most traditionally associated with problem solving: the participants in the conflict brainstorm solutions and reach a workable agreement. The problem is either solved, or, if it's unresolved, it drifts away and then circles back coming upon the conflict participants again and again from behind, in the same or another guise.
Over the years, working with individuals and families, I have developed and elaborated on this three-part model of conflict resolution until it is admittedly complex, but you begin with these three primary, easy-to-remember concepts: Think, Talk/Listen, Solve.
Beyond the Basics
If Think, Talk/Listen, Solve was all you had to learn, this would be a much shorter book. But there's more. Each of the three big parts of the conflict resolution model has five steps. And three times five is....
"Fifteen steps! I don't have time to teach my kid fifteen steps! I don't have the patience!" you may be thinking. Bear with me. if you spent fifteen minutes for fifteen days teaching your child these steps, how would that compare with the time you spend fussing about clothes left on the floor, arguing whose fault the sibling squabble is, nagging about homework, and dealing with the "my teacher/coach/playground bully picks on me" ordeal? These fifteen steps will not cost you time; ultimately they Will save you time and frustration. Many families report an improvement in their family dynamics within weeks of conscientious use of the model.
If you need further reason to expend the effort, think of the overall importance of conflict resolution in life.
In relationships, conflict resolution is an important source of intimacy. Knowing that anger and hurt can be talked about without destructive behavior enables couples, parents, friends, and others to bring up and get through problems that inevitably arise.
Unresolved anger underlies a lot of heart disease, depression, and other illnesses. Conflict resolution is important for health physical and mental.
Resolving conflicts is a major factor in doing well in business and getting along with neighbors, classmates, and co-workers as well as family. We even use conflict resolution strategies to promote peace among nations.
As parents, we spend tons of time and energy trying to prepare our kids to have an economically secure life by education and career guidance. Your child may spend an hour a day on math, for example. Let's do the same for their attitudes, emotional reflexes, interpersonal habits, and conflict resolution skills. These are areas that contribute heavily to "emotional intelligence," the set of abilities that author Daniel Goleman (Emotional Intelligence, Bantam Books, 1995) describes as mattering more than IQ or academic achievement in getting along successfully in the world.
We also provide our children with hobbies and opportunities to socialize with groups. Isn't conflict resolution worth the same commitment of time and attention as scouting or Little League? If you think of conflict resolution as you do learning piano or tennis as a project needing formal lessons and lots of practice you can stay on track with the teaching. Work on reflexes toward anger as you do reflexes in tennis, encourage good habits in conflict resolution as you encourage good habits in piano, teach conflict resolution skills as you do soccer skills. Make it a family project and keep momentum going with approval and recognition.
You may not need to spend a lot of time on every one of the steps because you and your children already know and use some of them well. Concentrate on the ones you omit or do poorly. In a classroom or family with older children, you may want to sit down with the children and study the whole model formally, but in other situations you can introduce the steps more casually as the occasion allows.
While the three Parts of the model should be used in order Think, Talk/Listen, Solve You have more leeway with the order of the steps within the parts, as You mill see in the sample conflict resolutions later in the book.
Here's the expanded three-part, fifteen-step model. For each step, there is a short, easily remembered label and a brief elaboration.
PART ONE: THE THINKING STEPS
Step 1. Assess Emotions.
Anger is a signal to resolve a problem. Learn to recognize anger quickly, label it properly, and distinguish it from other emotions, realizing that several emotions often coexist.
Step 2. Accept Anger, Behave Well.
Tell yourself, "Anger is OK; it's how I handle it that counts." Separate feeling anger from acting out anger such as by hitting, yelling, or saying hurtful things. No one should be punished or feel guilty for feeling anger; however, you should control aggressive or hurtful behavior.
Step 3. Gauge Intensity.
Rate the intensity of your emotion on a scale of 1 to 10. Very low levels of anger may be ignored, while very high levels of anger must be reduced before a good resolution talk is likely. In the mid-range, it's okay to proceed with the conflict resolution process.
Step 4. Who and What?
Sometimes people get angry or in a "bad mood" and flail out at the nearest bystander (displacement) or complain about the wrong issue. Instead, learn to recognize what the real problem is and who is involved.
Step 5. Perspective Check.
Are you overreacting? Underreacting? Learn to keep anger in proportion to provocation, recognize your own contribution to the conflict, and try to see the other person's point of view.
PART TWO: THE TALK/LISTEN STEPS
Step 6. Time and Place.
Give resolution a chance by choosing the right time and place to bring UP the conflict.
Step 7. Avoid Coalitions.
Limit the conflict to the appropriate persons. Don't try to get uninvolved people to take sides. Conflict is almost never resolved when it's a team sport.
Step 8. Express Appropriately.
Tell the other person in a reasonable tone and manner what you are angry or hurt about. Don't spoil your chances of a friendly resolution by hostile or inappropriate behavior. State the problem in a way that makes it a resolvable issue.
Step 9. Listen Actively.
Repeat in your own words what the other person is telling you so you both know you truly understand his point of view. Expect him to do the same.
Step 10. Admit Fault.
Acknowledge your part in the problem. Most problems are not all one person's fault. Admitting what you have done to contribute to the problem adds objectivity and helps gain the other person's cooperation.
PART THREE: THE SOLVING STEPS
Step 11. Brainstorm Solutions.
Exchange ideas without judging them. Be creative. Consider ways to solve the problem without pointing out the flaws in anyone else's ideas.
Step 12. Pros and Cons.
Decide which ideas have the most merit and assess the good and bad points of each.
Step 13. Decide and Plan.
Choose the solution that has the best chance of working, that all sides buy into. Plan how to put it into action and how you will monitor it. Set a time to review its success.
Step 14. Do It.
Follow through. Make a sincere effort to do what you have agreed to do and remind the others in a constructive way to do their part of the plan. Keep track of progress.
Step 15. Review/Revise.
Get together and talk about how well your plan has worked. What changes do you need to make? Celebrate success.
You may want to return to this section and read this model over several times until it's very familiar. The rest of the book is based on understanding, adapting, practicing, and teaching these steps.
HOW TO USE THIS BOOK
In the next chapter, I present some general principles and techniques for teaching children of any age. Included are ways to be a model of harmony yourself, to draw your child out, to get him to buy into the resolution of conflict, and to reinforce his progress. This is a critical chapter that I hope you'll read carefully and even study.
In Chapter Three, I address some special obstacles that you may need to tackle before teaching conflict resolution. These obstacles are defensiveness, noncompliance, and a behavior pattern called "getting your goat." A fourth obstacle is not related to the child's behavior; it's the reluctant adult. I offer ideas to the person who doesn't expect to be able to "sell" the idea of conflict resolution to the other parent or adult who is a major player in the child's life. Sometimes, in fact, the other parent or adult may be a big part of the problem.
In Chapters Four through Seven, I address teaching conflict resolution skills to four different age groups: infants through preschoolers, elementary-school-age children, preadolescents, and teens. At the end of each chapter. I run through a typical dispute for that age and how to resolve it, using the three-part, fifteen-step conflict resolution model.
To thoroughly understand the whole process and its rationale from an adult point of view, turn to Chapters Eight, Nine, and Ten. In these chapters I use adult examples, a greater degree of analysis, and a mature perspective.
Some readers may want to read the adult chapters first. Some may want to read Chapters One through Three and then skip to the age group chapter appropriate to their child. These are reasonable plans. Realize, however, that while reading the book from cover to cover will admittedly involve repetition of some of the concepts, it is one of the best ways to learn the ideas well enough that they become close to second nature. And you will find some ideas in one age group chapter that you won't find in the other chapters. You may end up adapting a technique meant for one age for use with another age, even a technique from the very young years to apply to someone much older, as the "No biggy piggy" reminder was passed on.
Moreover, if you go through the book in order, from teaching preschoolers to teaching teens and on into the more analytical adult model, you can learn the model as the child learns, from the simple to the more complex, from the more playful and incidental approach to the more intellectual and direct. You may observe how attitudes about anger and patterns of conflict are formed in childhood over time. You may also gain insight into how your own attitudes were formed. And, if you happen to be an adult who in childhood got some unhealthy ideas about the expression of anger and the way to resolve conflicts, you can relearn more constructive patterns from childhood up. I hope you will find, while reading this book, that you yourself are changing as you pick up the tools to teach your child.
You have reason to be optimistic. Years ago, I was doing a cognitive therapy approach with a bright young child. We were working on altering his habitually scary bedtime images to convert such thoughts to funny images. He was also confrontational and argumentative but wanted to be better. He came in one day and surprised me by announcing that he had made a decision." He was going to throw out the window "I can't," "I won't," "I won't try," and "no."
Stunned with his understanding of the importance of such thoughts, I asked what he was going to keep.
"You know, of course," he said. "'I can,' 'I will,' 'I'll try,' and 'yes.'"
Fifteen minutes later, when his mother told him to clean up the toys and get ready to go, he said angrily, "I won't...whoops, I threw that one out the window...Okay." He cleaned up the toys and departed happily.
Copyright © 1999 by Lyndon D. Waugh, M.D.