I recently finished reading The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks, a true life account of growing up and working on a sheep farm in England’s Lake District and how the farm moved from one generation to the next and the author’s relationship with his father ebbed and flowed.
It is a gritty, honest account of the difficulties they faced.
My last book was Elizabeth Hay’s His Whole Life, which observed how one family interacted with one another and those around them, how they handled conflict and how poorly thought-out estate planning could have long-term consequences for the family and their relationships.
In one part of this book, the principle character is faced with an old friend who had abandoned her in the past. In the meeting, she couldn’t quite forgive her friend and later, on reflection, realized that this was because she didn’t really want to forgive her — and there lies the one stark truth: that we may not always want to forgive, resolve conflict or repair relationships.
Many families struggle with poor communication and conflict that are often fueled by sibling rivalry or historical events that can’t be forgotten but where the original arguments are no longer remembered.
They often come to me with this primary issue and the hope that I have the answer.
Of course, the answers may appear simple if you read the “how to” books. They will outline basic steps that the family needs to follow, and if they do, then everyone will re-unite in harmony.
Except we know it is rarely that simple and that people don’t necessarily follow logical thought processes when in a state of conflict.
So it’s the books about life that we need to reach for, the ones that point out that maybe it’s not that we can’t forgive but that we simply don’t want to.
Trudy Pelletier, a communication specialist from Calgary, recently told the Canadian Association of Family Enterprises symposium that it requires two parties to participate for there to be conflict and that you have to look to yourself first to resolve it.
In other words, the decision to be in conflict is a conscious one, and the decision to resolve the conflict can also be a conscious one, but you need to start with yourself.
So when a family in conflict comes to me seeking help, the first question I ask is, “how much do you really want this to work and what are you prepared to give up in order to get there?”
I often think people come to me seeking confirmation that they are right and the other party is wrong, and they become disappointed or disillusioned with the process when I don’t do that.
However, the nature of conflict resolution is not to apportion blame or to identify who is right and who is wrong. Instead, it seeks out mutual interests and focuses on those. To do that, you have to be prepared to move away from your position, and to do that, you have to want to.
There are a number of behaviourial options in most conflict situations.
One of them is avoiding or accommodating behaviour, usually when the relationship is more important to us than the outcome. However, this can cause a buildup of tension.
We may also see competing behaviour, where the outcome is more important than the relationship, or compromising behavior, where we are trying for a win-win.
A win-lose situation is the likely result when the conflict is competitive, and this usually means a lose–lose in families because a relationship is broken.
Collaboration is our best behaviourial choice.
It results in a better outcome if successful, but it also requires energy, forgiveness, understanding, empathy and time.
Reading books about life shows us that these characteristics may be in short supply. When we observe the world around us, we know that the process of conflict resolution is not easy.
Conflict resolution likely won’t be found in a “how to” book. Instead, it is a process of collaboration, guidance and experience that offers the best chance of success.
The choice is then up to you.