It's all supposed to be joyful when families reunite for the holidays, but many find plenty of conflict - from disputes dating back to childhood to disagreements over politics. Do we have to fight the same battles every time, or is there a way to ease the tension? Leanne Knobloch, a professor of communication, teaches courses on interpersonal and family communication, as well as conflict resolution. Her current research looks at the challenges military families face when service members return from deployment. Knobloch was interviewed by News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain.
Some quarrels between family members can go on for years, with the same arguments or tensions repeated over and over again. Why do these disputes never get resolved or put to rest?
Serial arguments occur when individuals have ongoing conflict about the same issue over time. The issue tends to be thorny and volatile, such as situations in which one person violates another person's expectations, when people have different expectations for their relationship, or when they hold divergent values.
No matter what the topic, serial arguments usually have a systematic pattern: An individual pressures another person to change his or her behavior without taking into account that person's goals, the person gets defensive and withdraws from the episode, so the initiator decides to re-engage the issue later with even more pressure, which only leads that person to withdraw further. Over time, people find themselves locked into a dysfunctional pattern of mutual hostility.
Not surprisingly, serial arguments can have harmful effects on people's personal well-being and the health of their relationships. Serial arguments are especially damaging when they are confrontational, explosive and abrasive.
It's common advice to avoid discussing politics and religion, but it happens anyway and the conversations can get very heated. What's the dynamic in these situations? Why can these subjects sometimes feel so personal when discussed within a family?
When people disagree about sensitive topics such as politics and religion, it may seem as though they are arguing about abstract concepts, but in fact, they are questioning each other's views of the world. Oftentimes, people's arguments over politics and religion call attention to deeply rooted differences in their fundamental beliefs, central values and core attitudes. These conversations can quickly dissolve into criticisms of people's most strongly held worldviews, which is why the topics are not recommended for lighthearted conversation.
How should we approach a family conflict we want to resolve?
A couple of communication strategies are helpful. First, establish common ground - such as "We all want what's best for our parents as they get older" or "We're on the same side; we're trying to figure out how to spend and save our money to help us reach our goals."
Remember to listen attentively and to avoid judging the other person's point of view. Statements that can be interpreted as critiques, even if they aren't intended that way, will only lead the other person to become defensive.
Finally, be flexible. When conflicts escalate, people often get locked into repeating their same strategy at a louder volume, instead of trying a new tactic. If candor isn't working, try humor. If logic isn't working, try an emotional appeal. But don't employ the same behavior over and over again and expect different results.
When is it better just to avoid a topic?
Sometimes the very best way to preserve family harmony is to agree to disagree. If both parties have heard each other out, worked hard to understand each other's point of view and brainstormed creative ways to address the issue, but still have not been able to reach a satisfactory solution, then it's probably better to table the issue. Just make sure that everyone involved is willing to make the topic off-limits, and then agree to disagree.