Couples, families and households are facing weeks, if not months, of much closer contact than normal. Conflict is going to arise as we face changes to household routines, spend more time with our families or households, and face new stresses and challenges.
Unfortunately, lockdowns and stay at home orders are leading to increased reports of domestic and family violence. This is not a post about what to do if you are being exposed to coercive control or violence. If you are in this situation, please reach out for support. There is a list of phone or web helplines from a range of countries here. There are also some suggestions for things you can do if you know somebody who is experiencing domestic or family violence here.
Here, I suggest seven tips that might help to respond to conflict that may arise during the COVID-19 shutdown.
1. Try to address conflict before it becomes a real problem
Many people are afraid of conflict, having seen it get out of hand and lead to arguments or fights. The problem isn’t conflict itself, but when we—or other people—respond to conflict in a self-defensive, a combative, or even a violent way. Conflict can actually lead to positive change, greater understanding and deepening of relationships. While it can sometimes be helpful to be accepting of others and not to turn things into a conflict, it is often important that we do address conflicts or things that are annoying us, before they become a crisis. It is generally easier to deal with issues earlier rather than letting them escalate.
2. Try to find a balance between respecting yourself and caring for others
In the Alternatives to Violence Project, we emphasise the importance of respect for self and caring for others, and the need to find a balance between the two. A conflict involves people wanting or needing different things. I want the kids to go to bed; they want to stay up for a while. I want to reduce our spending; my partner wants to buy a new TV. We can’t afford to take our child to the doctor, and we disagree about what we should. So part of balancing respect for self with caring for others, is thinking about what the other person wants or needs as well as what I want or need.
Caring for others also means that we avoid attacking them, insulting them, deliberately doing things that will annoy or hurt them, or pushing their buttons. Respect for self means that we stand up for ourselves, speak up if we are being treated unfairly or with disrespect, and look after ourselves.
During the crisis it is especially important that we respect ourselves by things like looking after our physical and mental health, being aware of how we are coping, and reaching out for support if we need it; and care for others by doing things like doing random acts of kindness, checking in on our loved ones, and affirming (or noticing and commenting on) the things we appreciate in other people (e.g., acknowledging or saying thank you when your children or other people are kind, helpful or display behaviour you appreciate.)
3. Work together rather than making it into a competition with a winner and a loser
Try toseeconflict as a problem you need to solve WITH the other person. How can you find respond to the issues in a way you are both happy with, or at least can live with, rather than responding in a way that involves a winner or a loser? When our kids were much younger and there were problems with what to have for dinner, we got everybody in the family to rate our regular dinners with a sad face, or one, two or three stars. We agreed that we would avoid meals with a sad face, and if we did have one, then next meal would be a three star one. This meant that we avoided many fights because the kids knew the next meal would be one they liked. It isn’t always easy to come up with a way forward that everybody is happy with, but at least we can try. Sometimes it might help to come with an agreement about how to make a decision (e.g., you decide what to watch on TV this time, I decide next time.)
4. Look at things from the other person’s point of view
What do you see below? Do you see a series of shapes – maybe a hat on its side, an arrow, a factory or characters from the 1980’s computer game space invaders.
But maybe you can see a word.
If you can’t find the word and want it highlighted, CLICK HERE.
We can often get into arguments because we are focusing on different things. If you focus on the black in the picture above, you see a whole lot of shapes. If you focus on the white, you see a word. Neither is correct—they are both there and both “correct.”
In conflict it can help to realise that there are different ways of seeing a conflict and to try to see the situation from the other person’s point of view. In a conflict between a parent and a teenager over going to a party, they are often focusing on different things. The teenager wants to catch up with friends and have fun. The parent wants them to be safe and not get into trouble. The teenager still wants to be safe and not get in (too much) trouble, and the parent still wants their child to catch up with friends and have fun, but their focus is on different things. Making it clear that you understand where the other person is coming from, and trying to find a way forward that addresses both points of view, can help.
What does the other person want or need? How do they see things? For example, if the other person is becoming very defensive, what do you think they are worried about? What might help them become less defensive? You might want to ask them what they are worried about, what they want or what they think would help.
5. Really listen to what the other person is saying
To look at things from the other person’s point of view, we need to really listen to them. Take the time to listen and make sure that you have understood what they are saying. Try summarising what you have heard: “So what you are saying is ….” “Do you mean …” “Can I make sure I understand you correctly. Are you saying ….” (With younger children putting their feelings or wants into words is a valuable lesson too.) Feeling heard, particularly if it is without judgement, can often take some of the heat out of a conflict and help someone calm down.
6. Think before responding
In the heat of the moment, it can be hard to think before reacting, but it can make a big difference if we can take a breath and think before we respond. Different ways of taking a moment before responding work for different people. Being aware of your body (e.g., what are your early warning signs) and focusing on your breathing are strategies that many people find helpful. Taking some time out or going for a walk (if it isn’t a total lockdown!) can be helpful, as long as you are not using them purely as avoidance strategies. Take some time out but, especially if it is important, come back to the conflict or issue. Sometimes it can be helpful to let a conflict go and not to address it, but this can become a problem if it becomes a pattern and if you avoid addressing important issues.
Many schools encourage students to THINK before speaking, which includes some useful reminders when dealing with conflict.
7. Be gentle with yourself and other people
Remember that many people are quite stressed by what is happening in their personal lives and the community around them., so be gentle with yourself and those around you. As already suggested, notice—and comment on—when the people around you are doing something kind or supportive, when children are cooperating and playing well together, or when things are going well. Try not to just focus on the problems and the conflict. We are all going to stuff up at times, so when this happens, try to respond in a way that doesn’t make the situation worse or heighten the conflict. Be willing to say sorry and to accept apologies.
These are very challenging times for many people and many people will face more conflict at home than normal. It can also be a time to rebuild relationships and to rejuvenate. I’d love to hear what is helping you deal with tension and conflict, and how you are making the most of having to stay at home.
- Respect for self
- Care for others
- Think before reacting
- Seek a nonviolent path
- Expect the best
If you liked this post please follow my blog, and you might like to look at:
- What are Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) workshops?
- 12 principles of a problem solving approach to conflict resolution
- What are authoritarian, permissive, uninvolved and authoritative parenting styles?
- Parenting styles – another look
- The Alternatives to Violence Project: Reflections on a strengths-based approach to nonviolent relationships and conflict resolution
- Nonviolence as a Framework for Youth Work Practice
If you find any problems with the blog, (e.g., broken links or typos) I’d love to hear about them. You can either add a comment below or contact me via the Contact page.