When the kids were about 4 or 5 we came up with some simple steps to help them (and us, as it turned out) work through conflict. We’d convene a Meeting, which is:
- Offered or required when it becomes apparent (yelling, tears, blood) that the kids could not resolve a matter by themselves.
- Intentionally formal and time-consuming, providing some incentive for the kids to work things out on their own:
Do we need to have a Meeting?
No! We can take care of this by ourselves!
- A good tool to help all of us better internalize ways to resolve conflict. We’ve found these steps useful in the workplace, too.
The moderator (usually the one who convened the Meeting) sits between the parties in conflict, preferably with an arm around each one. The setup goes something like this:
Welcome to our Meeting. Here are the reasons that we’re doing this: 1) we want to make sure everyone has a chance to say what they need to say; 2) we want to make sure we hear what others are saying; and 3) we want to find a way to figure things out.
First, each of you will have a turn to tell your story while the others listen carefully without interrupting you. Then each of you will have a chance to say something else if you want to. I will probably offer some comments about what’s been said and ask for your ideas about how things could have been done differently or better.
Then, if apologies are needed, we will make them and receive them, and we will end with a gesture of goodwill.
Any questions? Who would like to go first?
It’s often tempting for one party to jump in while the other is telling his/her story, so a simple reminder may be needed that only one person at a time gets to talk, and there will be an opportunity for more comments:
Lauren, it’s Zack’s turn to talk and our turn to listen. We’ll make sure that you can say what you need to after he’s finished.
Apologies at our house require three things: 1) steady eye contact to reduce the risk of eye rolling; 2) using the other person’s name; and 3) specifically naming the action for which the apology is offered:
Lauren, I’m sorry that I ripped that page out of your book.
It does not require that we feel like apologizing. An apology is a choice and we do it whether we feel like it or not.
Accepting apologies at our house requires two steps: 1) steady eye contact; and 2) receiving the apology:
I accept your apology and I forgive you.
Again, feelings are not required – this is a choice. That said, we do pay attention to tone of voice. An apology that sounds mocking or insincere must be repeated until the moderator is satisfied that it meets or exceeds minimal standards for sincerity.
The question, “Zack, is there anything else you need to say to Lauren or need to hear from her?” (and the same question to Lauren) can ensure that all known issues are addressed.
We always end our Meetings with a “gesture of goodwill” between the parties. This can be a high five, a handshake, or a hug.
Repeat as often as necessary!
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One of the things we like most about a Meeting is that it takes us through all the steps needed to get an issue resolved. Air grievances, listen, take responsibility for our contributions, receive counsel, offer and accept apologies, make a good faith effort to restore the relationship. Variations on these themes? Sure – but the essential ingredients are there.
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There have been occasions when Susan or I have needed some help to untangle our own conflict with one of the kids. The other adult has had to sit us down and walk us through a Meeting. It takes only a small dose of humility to fall back on the familiar steps to work things out. More importantly, it is a powerful statement to the kids that we hold ourselves to the same standards we are trying to teach them. There hasn’t [yet] been a situation in which either Lauren or Zack convened a Meeting when Susan and I were in conflict with each other, but I believe they could do it.
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When Susan and I presented The Meeting at a parenting workshop at our church, we asked a couple of parents to take the part of their kids and role play a Meeting with me. They really got into it. The two moms interrupted and accused each other out of turn, reached across me to hit each other, and one ran away and hid under a table! I had to concentrate less on what I was presenting in order to get firm with them, suggesting we cancel our ‘trip to the zoo’ unless they showed a little more cooperation. Seemed to us that they had no difficulty imagining themselves in their own Meetings with family members!