Resolving Conflict

By Kenneth Kaye

Getting at the underlying issue can end the vicious cycle of pain that marks familyfights.

When she heard her terminally illhusband and two sons start yetanother round of nasty squabbling, Grace Spyros could dolittle but mutter, "Here we goagain." She knew the combatants' habitswell enough. Any minor matter couldprovoke a sudden outburst. After thefighting ended, several days of stony silence would settle upon the household.Then the men would change into theirbest behavior, which they wore likeoverly starched shirts. Within days, thecycle would begin again.

Traditional methods of conflict resolution assume that people are truly fighting about what they say they are fighting about and that they want to resolvetheir problems rationally. Family arguments, however, are far more subtle andfar less rational. Family members frequently conspire to sustain conflict because it helps them avoid somethingthey fear might be evenworse than the devil theyknow.

Conflicts that mask hidden fears tend to follow apredictable circular pattern(see "Cycle of conflict,"below): As anxiety builds,family members initiate arguments that distract themfrom critical issues. The encounters escalate into destructive battles, which create more anxiety. Eventually,tempers cool down. Sooneror later the family's unresolved dilemmas resurface and the cycle begins once again.

The only way to break this viciouspattern is for families to confront thevery issues they have diligently avoided.Sometimes they know painfully wellwhat those issues are and merely needa sensitive advisor to help them talk candidly and constructively. Other timesfamilies bury their most important problems so deeply that they need a familytherapist.

Unaddressed fears can often be identified by asking, "What would happenif. . . ?" For example, "What might happen if you weren't fighting about parking places?"

"We'd be fighting about somethingelse."

"And what if you didn't fight aboutanything?"

"Then Dad wouldn't have any reasonto yell at us."

In the case of the fictional Spyros family, son John thought he was making awisecrack, which did indeed partly explain the group's behavior. I asked thefamily a series of "what if' questions,concluding with this one:"What wouldit feel like if Ted weren't yelling?" The answer was startling. When the gravely ill patriarch yelled at his sons, the familycould pretend he was well.

Analyzing a chronic circular conflictcan accomplish several things at once.After family members have identifiedtheir shared fears, they can begin to isolate the triggers that divert them into unproductive battles.In the Spyros family,the surest trigger was Ted's decision totake a day off from work because hewas feeling ill. One son would pick onthe other, who would start a shoutingmatch that would escalate until Ted gotinvolved. A lot of angry words werehurled, but no one ever mentioned whatwas foremost in his mind-grief for adying father.

Although conflict can hurt a familyand ruin a closely held business, it canalso create opportunity. The greatestbenefit of analyzing the cycle of repeatedclashes is that family members leamroutinely to ask one another, "Whatwould happen if... ?"

Here is how conflict and resolutionplayed itself out in 'Ted's family. Doctors told Ted that he'd die of cancerwithin six months. One year later, Tedwas still alive, but paincaused the 54-year-old tospend fewer and fewerhours at his business. For years, 'Ted and Grace worried that their sons would never get along. Now theyfeared that Ted's illness would somehow makethose fears come true.

The two boys invariablyargued whenever their father was too ill to work.Ted,who could bellow with thebest, would soon be drawninto the argument.The sonshad thus resuscitated theirtough, vigorous father, if only for awhile. If the argument lasted into theevening, the sisters were sure to get involved, telling their brothers to stop acting like babies. This provoked loudershouting. Eventually, Ted would go intoa coughing fit, the women would chastise the boys for "goading" their father,and then the arguing would cease.Within a few days, however, sadness andpanic stirred the sons to new conflicts.

Curiously, the word "death" wastaboo in this family. In our meetings,the family referred only to "the situation." I began to explore what might happen if the relatives acknowledged theirgrief and discussed the problems thatlay ahead. I interrupted one of theirshouting matches and asked everyonein the room what he or she was feeling.Ted felt "angry." The women felt "aggravated." One son felt "accused," andthe other felt "happy because our personalities are finally getting dealt with."I then said I was feeling sad about Ted'sprognosis.

I asked, "What might your family belike a year from now if your dad's notaround After a silence, one daughterreplied, "I'm afraid we'll fall apart as afamily." She thought that if her two brothers weren't forced to work together, bothwould distance themselves from the family. The children also feared that theirmother wouldn't be able to function without Ted. Grace assured them that shewas stronger than they realized.

Only by talking about their concernswas the family able to begin atrue heal-ing process. Ted's sons have not becomeclose friends or effective partners, butthey finally broke out of their self-destructive patterns and began to talkabout the serious matter of what to dowith their father's business.

Kenneth Kaye, a Chicago psychologist,won the Family Firm Institute's 1990Contribution to the Field Award for hispaper, "Penetrating the Cycle of SustainedConflict," to be published in the Spring1991 issue of Family Business Review.

Article categories: 
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Issue: 
January/February 1991

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