Conflict Busters: 5 Things You Can Do Today to Increase Cooperation & Contentment at Home

It is 7:15 pm on a Tuesday. All you want to is get the dinner on the table,  the kids through an acceptable amount of homework,  get everybody ready for school tomorrow, teeth brushed, faces washed, and off to bed.  Your day at work was hard, and their days at school and aftercare were long.   Stirring the pot on the stove, you begin calling out for some help. “Hey! Could somebody get down here and set the table? somebody?”

You weren’t really expecting a response; after all it is only the first request. Besides, you aren’t sure they can even hear you over the brawl that has broken out in the hallway. Somebody is shouting at somebody else over having taken the last . . . something . . . not sure what, and … “Hey!  I hear you two out there! You heard me.  Will someone please….”  Much to your amazement,  a stampede of response hurtles through the kitchen door. Oh, wait. No: “MoOOOmmmm!! Mom! MOM!! Yael took my..”   “Your?!  YOUR?!?  It’s  OURS!  Isn’t it? “MOooommmm!!! MOM!!”

You are a good parent, you love your kids. All you ever wanted was for them to be happy, succeed at the things that are important to them, and to feel safe and loved. So why does every day feel so hard, why is every little thing such a struggle? Some days you are so worn out, sad, and disheartened by the never-ending rounds of conflicts you find yourself wondering where the joy has gone. Can it really be this hard to get everyone to school, to get the homework done, to get everyone fed and dressed, to get to work and back?

In times like these you wish there was something you could do to take the conflict down a notch, get a little more cooperation, and have a measure more contentment mixed into the day-to-day.  Well, this is your lucky day! How about not one thing, but five  things you can do?  Not one of which require super powers or a halo!

Download this guide, here:  5 Conflict Busters download

Conflict Buster 1: Understand What Type of Conflict You are Dealing With. It Matters.

“Conflict is an expressed struggle between at least two interdependent parties who perceive incompatible goals, scarce resources, and interference from others in achieving their goals” (Wilmot & Hocker, 2007).  Your kids need you, you need your kids.  Your lives are inextricably bound together in a complicated weave of interdependencies. And while there is a foundational similarity in your goals, (acquiring food, sleep, safety, love, belonging, esteem, a life of creativity and some room for spontaneity) how the members of your particular family attain these goals bears the stamp of their personalities, developmental stages, and the context (where you are, what you are doing, who you are with) at  any given moment. So, multiple times each day, your kids, your partner, you yourself, get it into your head(s) that the ‘other’ is bound and determined to interfere with you/they getting what you/they need in that moment.  And this perception of interference sets the stage for just what type of conflict you are dealing with.

A handy way to remember that conflict has different forms, and thus different remedies, comes from the work of Wilmot and Andes (2004).  They coined the mnemonic TRIP: Topic, Relational, Identity/Face, Process.

Topical conflicts can be identified by answering the question “What does each person want?”  If the answer is some object, can be put into a bullet list, or can be argued with a pros and cons structure, it is a Topic conflict.  Some examples are: getting a new game, piece of furniture, or article of clothing.  Having more free time, having a clean apartment, getting a ride to the mall.  Having the table set for dinner.

Relational conflict can be identified by answering the question “Who are we to each other?”  In parenting and partnering, this is a moving target. And the rate at which it is moving can be a huge part of the conflict landscape. Classically, adolescents and teens lobby for this to change at a much faster rate than parents.  If you, your kids, or partner find yourselves saying things like: “What I need here is some respect.” or “Well, you don’t have to be nasty about it.”   And  “I am only 18 months younger than Aliesha, but she gets to stay up an hour later than me AND got to watch that movie. I don’t think that is fair!” Or the classic “What I do is none of your business.”  Then you have Relational conflict.

The tricky part is,  Relational conflicts are very rarely stated as open, clear requests for specific types of relating that can be negotiated, clarified, and addressed.   Yet research shows that the more Relational elements are ignored in a conflict, the less likely it is that agreement on Topical conflicts will be arrived at.  Although most conflict starts out sounding like a Topical conflict, listen compassionately and you will discover that Relational issues are at the heart of it; the Topics are bids for clarification of Relationship.

Identity/Face  conflicts are related—and yet distinct from—Relational conflicts. The concept of Identity/Face conflicts arise when you feel that your value, your esteem has been damaged. “Been damaged”  differs from Relational  in that it is a present time action – Relational issues are a more stable status thing. Oddly, we can damage our own face in a conflict (and feel harmed by that), or our Face can be damaged by others.

If Face is being destroyed, it must be restored before any movement on the conflict can be made. When we feel our Face is being damaged, we dig into our positions, rationalize our past or intended actions, feel like a loser, claim we are being intimidated, and start thinking in terms of ‘getting back at’ the other.  Not likely to contribute to increased cooperation and contentment!  Identity/Face is a potential component of most conflicts. As the conflict escalates in temperature—starts to feel riskier, more is at stake— it will often shift abruptly to issues of Face.  You can feel the shift; you begin to wonder how you drifted so far from the original issue you were dealing with, and you, your kid, or your partner might even say, “I don’t even know what we are fighting about anymore!”

Process conflicts emerge when you can’t agree on how the conflict will be resolved. Is it ok to just order compliance from the person with less autonomy and status? Before you answer, think of the time you ‘ordered’ your child to stop in his tracks as he headed pell mell toward the busy street. That’s ok, right? If the conflict will be resolved through discussion, is each person assumed to have equally valid data about the issues at hand? (“But Mom, nobody ever got hurt doing this….”) Who gets to decide when ‘enough’ supporting data and rounds of persuasion have been aired?  Does there have to be consensus, or a simple majority, or is a benevolent dictatorship best for this situation? Do kids get a ‘vote’, and if so, at what age?

So, while not all conflicts contain all 4 types, in general, issues of Process need to be dealt with first, so as not to invoke ‘then I am taking my ball and going home’. Next, issues of Relational conflict need to be explored, while monitoring for Identity/Face pitfalls.  Then, finally the field is clear to effectively handle Topics that are at conflict.

“Holy Smokes!” you might be thinking. “I thought this didn’t require capes or halos!”  Keep reading, and thanks for sticking with this! As promised at the top of this article, I am going to offer you 4 more very do-able Conflict Busters, each with the capacity to address the Conflict types you just learned about.

Conflict Buster 2: Rethinking the Chore Chart  – The Work Horse Conflict Buster 

Before you roll your eyes, think about the Chore Chart in light of TRIP Conflict types. The Chore Chart is the quintessential instrument of clarity when it comes to communicating the Topic.  In our opening scenario, Mom was standing in the kitchen hollering out to her family, who were each engaged in other pursuits at the moment.  Without a doubt, her raising a Topic (get the table set) was perceived as interference in the obtainment of whatever goals/pursuits the rest of the family was engaged in. As it would happen, that was settling a property possession dispute. The kids tumbling into the kitchen was an obvious interference with Mom’s goals of getting the table set.  Conflict Central! Are either of these goals wrongful, without merit, or invalid? Certainly not!  Timing a Topical request is everything, and the Chore Chart has timing down.

By making a clear, concise, obvious statement of the Topical goals well in advance of expectation of fulfillment, the overall events of conflict per day are driven down dramatically.  Just imagine — perhaps there are an average of 25 things that need to be done by a four person family between arrival home in the evening, and going to bed.  That represents 25 opportunities for a perceived conflict simply through the interruption of the just-in-time style request!

But wait, you say. “I’ve tried this before, and it failed miserably.  The Chore Chart itself became another source of conflict.”   There are Chore Charts and there are Chore Charts.  An effective and full service Chore Chart can be implemented using an amazingly useful process—one could almost say “magical process”—that I will reveal in Conflict Buster 3 (wait for it!).

With a fully functioning Chore Chart, expectations are clear, your family can arrange their activities more within their own timeframes, thus feeling more of a sense of empowerment and autonomy, which results in building Identity/Face.  Additionally, the approach you use to implement an effective Chore Chart makes healthy statements about Relational issues as well.  Many families struggle over and over again with justifying the authority or reasonableness of a request (the forwarding of a Topic) every time the request is made. The Chore Chart addresses and sets tone for the Relational Conflict once, rather than many times a day.  It simultaneously confirms that you, the parent(s) are Head(s) of Household, and sends everyone the message that they are worthy of trust and respect, and not to be harassed and chivvied into basic tasks on a daily basis.   Less conflict, more cooperation.

There are many effective Chore Chart systems, you need not invent the whole process on your own. For example, the website has a wide variety of chore and behavior chart templates. The charts are grouped by age ranges, which is handy.  Some already contain lists of chores and behaviors; others are all ready for you to fill in the blanks with the things that will develop cooperation in your particular family.  The well respected  has a section ‘printables’ which has charts as well, and several articles to help you establish the chore chart system. A quick Google search will return literally thousands of websites, blogs, and how- to sites standing by to help you with this!

Conflict Buster 3:   1-2-3 Magic.   A Whole Bag of Awesome When it Comes to Reducing Conflict and Increasing Cooperation

Back in the day, a certain (childless) philosopher and musician named Rousseau (1712-1778) took Calvinist tract writers to task on the topic of child rearing. His romantic assertion was that children are born in a ‘natural state’ that is nigh unto perfection. They pop out into the world with all the graces, compassion for others, industriousness, and social skills required for a happy, cooperative, conflict free life. His book, “Émile: or, On Education” goes through periodic bouts of popularity, and is cited even today.  Did I mention that he was childless? Well, more specifically, he fathered several children, but forced his partner to give each of them away, in turn.

In 1985, Dr. Thomas Phelan published “1-2-3 Magic – Effective Discipline for Children 2-12”. Phelan is an internationally renowned expert on appropriate discipline, ADD, and has had a clinical psychology private practice since 1972. Oh, and he raised children and has grandchildren.   This little gem has been translated into 20 languages, has sold over 1,250,000 copies, and is in its 4th edition as of 2010, with useful and timely updates that reflect changes in the real world of families today. It is also available as a DVD, and has been converted to a parenting class curriculum available at many local pediatric hospitals, including Kaiser Permanente (you don’t need to be a Kaiser member to attend. Check it out here

If reading even this slim volume seems impossible to schedule, get the DVD!  The books and DVDs, (new and used) are available from Amazon here , and the book will only set you back around $9.  Many used book stores and most libraries have a collection of them as well.

I used 1-2-3 Magic with my 5 kids in a blended family, and frequently recommend it to parents in my clinical practice. It works, and it works fast!  It is a straight forward, easy to read little guide to—as the reviewers say— “learning an amazingly simple technique to get kids to STOP doing what you don’t want them to (whining, arguing, tantrums, etc.), START doing what you want them to do (picking up, eating, going to bed, chores, etc.) and strengthening your relationship and bond with your children.”  This last part is important.  Without pulling any punches but employing a lot of humor, Phelan points out that nagging, shouting, pestering, overparenting, spanking, arguing, hovering, and exaggerated expectations perpetuate a viscous cycle. A cycle that research shows does not result in reduction of conflict or increased cooperation. But 1-2-3 Magic does!

Another magical element of Phelan’s approach is that it deals with all of the TRIP conflict areas in an uncomplicated, compassionate way.  A point Phelan makes firmly is that children need clear and unambiguous messages about the Topic, and he shows you how to do that.  He neatly demonstrates techniques for the phasing of Relational issues (“Who are we to each other?”) as your kids develop from very small children requiring a great deal of direction and oversight, into competent and emotionally intelligent emerging adults in their late teens.  And although Phelan uses a wry humor throughout the book to keep the tone light, he is very serious about and explains in very accessible terms why 1-2-3 Magic is far more respectful of your children than the classic cycles of talk-persuade-argue-yell-hit/punish many parents fall prey to.  And Process. Well, 1-2-3 Magic is all about making the Process practical, workable, and effective. Fast.  Like – now.

Conflict Buster 4: Stop Telling Yourself (and Others!) the Story of Misery and Conflict

Don’t worry, I am not going to tell you that just visualizing world peace will solve the problem.  It is more concrete than that. Overwhelmingly the research supports that expectations (those we have for ourselves, and those others have for us) actually shape the outcomes. We all know it as the Self- Fulfilling Prophecy. If we come home from work and begin the supper prep and evening activities convinced that the night will be riddled with conflict and lack of cooperation, it literally increases the chance that this is exactly what will happen.  But how does that work?  Researchers Taylor and Brown in 1988 found that positive outcome Self- Fulfilling Prophecies are often fueled by increased motivation to create solutions that work, and persistence.  Let’s break that down.

When we describe our families as “chaotic”, “a constant battle”, a “free for all”, we put it out there for our children and partners to hear as a description of reality.  Frequent assertions that “The kids don’t help around the house at all!”  “I have to do it all myself”,  “They are constantly fighting” likewise, are an announcement of expectations.  These descriptions, these stories, are not pinned down in time; they appear to describe both the past and the future.  And they etch deeper your own expectation of how each evening will unfold.

So, you help bring that expectation into reality by no longer asking for the tasks to be done, and done in a quality manner.  Or, you ask, but as a vague holler out from the kitchen, with an edge of anger that says the listener is already in trouble, anyway.  So now Relational conflict (“Who are we to each other, and can I really expect to be helped by my children?”) is already in play. And likely, Identity/Face Conflict as well.  The children have already lost Face, in that they are being interrupted as though their present occupation has no value, and that tone of exasperation in the shouted request indicates that they have been unjustly accused of refusing to help, even before they had a chance to respond. Yes, I know. 250 times in the past, they did not respond. But assume that they never will, and the whole game is up.  Expectations define outcomes.  If you don’t expect it will ever improve, it is very unlikely to.

So watch those stories of Misery and Conflict. See if you could reframe them something like, “In the past, the kids didn’t understand how much easier the evening would be if we each took responsibility for a couple of things. But they are beginning to get it, which makes me really proud of them.”  Too smarmy? Find your own words. Because your words become your realities.

 Conflict Buster 5: Foster a Family with an Attitude of Gratitude

In her recent book “The How of Happiness”  researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky called expressing gratitude the “meta-strategy for achieving happiness.”  She went on to say that recent research confirms “Gratitude is an antidote to negative emotions, a neutralizer of envy, avarice, hostility, worry and irritation.”   Find ways to express your gratitude on a daily basis and conflict goes down, cooperation and contentment goes up.  Expressed gratitude towards your partner and children is like a well-padded savings account; it helps buffer those moments of accidental loss of Face, or doubts about Relational issues.  Gratitude is the internationally accepted currency in return for a Topic request fulfilled. The key here is to get everyone in your family into the game.

Gratitude, as I am using it here, is not a silent, internal, stained glass windows sort of thing. It is active, energetic, has muscles, and moves.  Robert Emmons, A UC Davis researcher and prolific writer on the rich impact of practices of gratitude in our everyday lives, defines gratitude as “a felt sense of wonder, thankfulness, and appreciation for life.” His book “Thanks!: How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier”  has an entire chapter of suggestions for active gratitude.  You can also get a quick tour of what Emmons has found to be true in his brief YouTube talks, such as Cultivating Gratitude, which you can find here : .

We all know the basics of how Lion Taming works, right?  Every dolphin wrangler at Sea World understands the principle: you get more of what your reward.  Infallibly. You want the table set when supper is ready? Reward it. You want homework done on time? Reward it. You want kids pajamaed and ready for bed? Reward it.   And I don’t mean with allowances, (although they can be part of the picture), new toys, trinkets, chocolate bars or trips to the zoo. I mean with Active Gratitude.

In my Marriage and Family Therapy practice I often encounter parents who are so worn down by the struggle with everyday living that the level of conflict literally blinds them to the small—and perhaps infrequent—acts of cooperation and moments of contentment.  It has been months since they expressed overt gratitude to their kids and partners.  They can’t recall the last time they paused in the middle of the whirlwind and savored —out loud, and with the kids—the beauty of a well-made cupcake, or the way clean sheets smell great when you climb into them, arriving at school on time today, or the effort it took to get that one page of math homework done.  They get into a mindset that until all the forms of conflict and misbehaviors stop, it would somehow be dangerous to express approval for “partial” success. Nothing, absolutely nothing, is further from the truth.

Those dolphin wranglers? They didn’t wait until the jump through the fiery hoop was perfect to start doling out the fish snacks. They know the magical powers of Shaping. Any movement towards the final product—shaping—is initially rewarded. Swim towards the fiery hoop? Fish snack!  Make a little arc up in the water just below the fiery hoop? Fish snack!  Actual leap through the fiery hoop? Wow! Whole bucket of fish snack!  In your world, the fish snack is Gratitude.  “Yael, it was great how you had the table set before I even started the dinner!”  “Max, looks like the teeth didn’t get brushed before you hopped into bed, but I am really impressed that you are in your jammies, and your clothes are out for tomorrow.”  “Wow, Javier, an hour has gone by, and although you aren’t yet finished with that math, you have done an amazing job of staying at it, not getting distracted by the other kids, or complaining about it. That is so cool!”

A note of caution here –no false rewards!  Dolphins – and kids and partners– are totally onto that stuff. Several fascinating studies into the effects of false praise demonstrate that it is a powerful demotivater, harms self-esteem, and takes the joy of accomplishment away from the whole task at hand.  So keep it real.

Amazingly, active, expressed gratitude towards the things of everyday life also fill that account and buffer against regrettable incidents of conflict.  Make a practice of saying out loud, at least once a day and in your kids’ and partner’s hearing, something that you appreciate, fills you with wonder, or you are thankful for that isn’t about your kids or partner.  For example, out loud, comment on how absolutely delish that hot cup of coffee is! You know you were thinking it anyway, right? Encourage your kids and partners to make similar observations and declarations of gratitude.  (How’s that strawberry? Sweet? Tasty?”)  Instead of just mentally noting that the trees are starting to bud out and you saw some daffodils in the neighbor’s yard, comment “It is so awesome that the trees have cute little green leaves coming out, and I even saw some daffodils blooming in the Patel’s yard today…”  Research refers to this as savoring and found it to be a potent strategy in the happiness toolkit. Why? Well, this practice of gratitude isn’t only about making the others in your family feel more cooperative and contented; it is also about refueling yourself! Outward expressions of gratitude literally change your brain chemistry, giving you a little hit of contentment, an incremental boost to your resilience. And who doesn’t need that?

So there you go – 5 things you can do to take the conflict down a notch, get a little more cooperation, and have a measure more contentment mixed into the day-to-day, no super powers or a halo required. Aren’t you grateful?




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