Some conflict is normal in a family. When we’re quarantined together around the clock for days on end, with everyone affected by a range of stresses, it’s practically inevitable. And the way we talk to one another about our conflicts can often make them worse.
When you have reached the moment when things run off the rails, and you’re not sure how to get back on track, it’s time for a family meeting. Don’t wait until you’re so angry that you blow up. If you feel like you need to have a meeting, that’s a sign that you should have one. But sometimes the same dynamics that cause conflict can actually derail the meeting itself. You need a strategy.
As an educator and a founder of Cultures of Dignity, an organization that supports the emotional and physical well-being of young people and the people who care for them, I developed the following suggestions, with input from our high school interns and members of our teen editorial board, on how to hold an effective family meeting.
Get Yourself Ready
Look at a favorite picture or video of your child; one that makes you laugh and think the best of them. Hold that feeling. Aren’t you lucky this is your kid? Be ready to remember this picture if things get heated.
Now find a quiet place and write your responses to the following questions:
What are three things you want to accomplish in this meeting?
Are your three goals realistic?
How can you show that you’re treating yourself and others with dignity throughout this process?
Springing a “family meeting” on your kids will most likely result in eye-rolling, sighing and trying to hide from you. So give everyone plenty of notice. You’ll still get the eye roll but at least you’re respecting that they may have online social plans. Here are the basics of what you want to communicate:
Tomorrow, I’d like us to meet so we can figure out [briefly describe the problem you have]. Does meeting at 7 p.m. at the kitchen table work for your schedules? [If this doesn’t work, come up with a time that does work for everyone] Don’t worry, it’s not going to go on for hours. Also, please leave your phones in another room, and I’ll do the same.
The Meeting Begins
Here’s a suggested script that you can adapt as needed, depending on the ages and circumstances in your household.
We’re going through a really hard time together, and we’re all going through it in our own ways. It’s also natural that we’re getting on each other’s nerves. Maybe this seems weird or forced but I felt like I needed structure to have this discussion.
We may disagree or have a difference of opinion but I’m going to try my best to listen and take everything you say seriously. I hope you’ll do the same.
I’m going to do my best not to:
Here’s the process: We will begin with a few principles to remember throughout the meeting. Then we will take five minutes to write our answers to a few questions. When we’re done, we’ll come back and each person will have approximately three minutes to share their responses. While they’re talking, no one can interrupt them. Then the next person will go. After that, there’ll be time to ask questions. Then we’ll check in to make sure everyone feels they were listened to and we have a reasonable chance of making things better. The whole thing should take 45 minutes.
(Things to remember and help guide our behavior)
Listening is being prepared to be changed by what you hear. It doesn’t mean waiting for someone to stop talking so we can tell them why they’re wrong and we’re right.
Everyone has the right to have different opinions and feelings about a situation. No one has the right to say that another person’s opinion or feelings are wrong.
No matter what happens here, we still have to live together, so it’s in everyone’s best interest to get to a better place. Check how you’re showing up: no eye rolls, sighing or insulting body language.
Each of us is probably going to have to change at least one thing about what we’re doing to make the problem better.
Hand out paper so members of your household can write down their responses to the following questions. (You can take dictation for a child who is too young to write.)
Please describe specifically what’s frustrating you.
What do you want to happen instead?
Is there anything you’re doing that is contributing to the problem? If yes, is there something you’re willing to do to change it?
Why would these changes be hard to implement? Why would you think they wouldn’t work?
This meeting will be worth doing if …
Come back together and have each person read their responses. You can encourage people to write questions or things they want to remember on their paper as they listen to the other family member(s).
Q. and A. Session
This is a really tricky part of the meeting. People need to ask questions to get clarification but not come across as questioning the other person’s intelligence, logic or experiences. These sentence starters, or “stems,” can help people ask a “curious” question instead of a “why would you ever think X” question:
Can you tell me more about …?
Help me understand why …
Both of these sentence “stems” need to be used with a tone of genuine curiosity. If the tone is sarcastic, it doesn’t matter what you say, the person on the receiving end will get defensive and believe (for good reason) that you aren’t taking their perspective seriously.
Each person takes up to one minute to answer the following two questions:
What is the one thing you want everyone else to remember about what you said?
What is the one thing you heard from the other person that is important to remember?
It’s unrealistic to expect that one meeting will solve the conflict. So have a short check the next day.
What does success look like here? Maybe it didn’t go perfectly. That’s OK. Success is breaking at least some of the patterns of unproductive discussions. Don’t worry, you’ll have more opportunities to practice.
And once you’ve learned it, whether you’re cooped up at home or not, you can use this strategy not just with kids, but spouses, roommates, or anytime you’re frustrated, angry with or worried about other people.
Rosalind Wiseman is the co-founder of Cultures of Dignity and author of “Queen Bees and Wannabes.”