How to effectively de-escalate a family conflict

I’ve always felt the weight of my family’s dysfunction on my shoulders. From a young age, I was the listener and the mediator, which wasn’t necessarily healthy. Whenever a conflict arose, I felt overwhelmed and unsure of what to do. Should I run and hide? Or jump in and try to save what feels like a sinking ship? Luckily, since starting therapy in the last few years, I’ve become more equipped at setting boundaries so the burden isn’t so heavy, and I’ve also learned how to help de-escalate a family conflict when things get particularly tough.

Whether your family is dysfunctional or not, it can be hard to know when or how to step in. Here are a few things things to keep in mind whenever a family conflict arises:

Take a breath and write out how you feel

Sometimes, when things feel really intense, it can be helpful to take a step back and figure out how you feel. Psychotherapist Jessica Meiman recommends writing out a letter about what’s coming up for you, but with no intention to send it. It’s more about getting your feelings out on paper, which will help you decide how and when you want to communicate with your family.

“With family dynamics, there can be a lot of emotion and it can be hard to communicate when you’re in the heat of the moment,” says Meiman. Thus, writing in an unfiltered way and reading what you wrote will help you identify what’s really behind the emotion and what you want to express. This can bring intention into resolving a family conflict, which will help you feel more protected, even if it’s painful.

Be transparent about what you’re doing to process your feelings

If you need to step away, it is beneficial to indicate that you’re doing that to help de-escalate the family conflict. Meiman says, “There’s a huge difference between storming off and saying, ‘I need to take 15 minutes to figure out what I want to say right now because if I speak now, I might say something I don’t truly mean.’” When you do that, this will model something for your family, which can help improve the situation and hopefully they will learn from you. But they can’t learn from you if you don’t express your intention.

Show your vulnerability

According to psychotherapist Vanessa Kensing, “Assuming your family is generally healthy (e.g. no verbal or emotional abuse), then being vulnerable is a safe tool.” This means you don’t hide or bury your true feelings, but instead bring them to the table as a way to start an open dialogue about what’s going on.

It can be helpful to employ effective communication skills as a means to share your feelings. For example, using “I” statements and labeling your emotions or experiences will shift the conversation away from blame and instead give context and routes toward resolution. Kensing says, “’I’ statements are things like, ‘I feel hurt’ or ‘I got overwhelmed and said things I regret,’ which are more effective than saying, ‘You made me feel hurt/you hurt my feelings’ or ‘You did x, which is why I called you names.’” It’s good to avoid the blame game, as that can escalate a conflict even further.

Be accountable for your actions

When we take accountability for our role or actions in a conflict, it allows the other person to do the same. Says Kensing, “Oftentimes, conflict arises due to assumptions, so sharing about how you’re thinking, feeling, and experiencing something can help someone else see things from your perspective and build empathy.” While you may still meet some defensiveness, if you’re committed to de-escalation, Kensing recommends using a gentle tone to reiterate your point. This will help them see that you aren’t there to be “right,” but there to be curious about how to achieve resolution together.

Focus on the bigger picture

“When people are defensive, they can be nasty and say biting things,” says Kensing. In these instances, it’s good to focus on “depersonalizing the situation and what someone says.” Try to take a step back and realize that often when people say hurtful things it’s because they feel threatened or anxious, which could also stem from earlier trauma that has nothing to do with you. “While it still hurts to hear these things, that doesn’t make them true. Staying grounded in who you are and your purpose will allow you to address those hurtful things as words vs. internalizing them as truths,” Kensing says.

Because fights can go on forever as minor details are rehashed over and over again, Kensing believes that, “While you want everyone to feel seen and heard, it may be important to refocus conversations around the ‘big picture’ and repairing the relationship if it feels like no progress is being made.” Similarly, if someone comes to the table with the same complaint, you could take a more observational approach and objectively say, “I’ve heard you say that a few times today—what part do you feel like I don’t understand? What could I say to help you believe that I’ve heard you and understand you?”

Sometimes, you might have to remove yourself from the equation

If you feel unsafe, you might need to step away from the situation. If the situation “is characterized by verbal, physical or emotional abuse, de-escalation of conflict would focus more on removing yourself from threat,” Kensing says. In these cases, it could be worthwhile to seek out a mediator rather than trying to solve a situation on your own.

Realize that it might take other people time to be ready for a solution

Another thing to recognize is that even if you’re ready to find a resolution and move on, the other individuals might not be on the same page. Thus, Kensing says it’s important to acknowledge your own expectations before you enter a conversation. “If you expect to ‘fix it,’ you may be easily frustrated or annoyed,” she offers. “If instead your expectation is that this is one conversation of many, or just the beginning of repair, you may find it easier to navigate.”

Meiman also makes the point that it’s good to remember that you’re only one member of the family system, so it might not be possible to resolve the family conflict on your own. “It’s not just on you, so when you go in with intention about how you personally want to handle the situation, there will still be pain and discomfort. The goal isn’t to get rid of that, but be able to sit with your feelings and communicate where you’re at.”

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