The Most Conflict-filled Time of the Year

The holidays are often family time.  Notwithstanding the song’s claim that this is the “most wonderful time of the year,” families can be complicated.  Fights within families can be over almost anything – political views, child-rearing philosophies, religion, money, and on and on.  The catch is that the closeness and intimacy people feel towards family members is precisely what lets fights become so emotional – the people closest to us have the most ability to hurt us. 

Maggie was dreading the visit to her parents for the week between Christmas and New Year’s.  Her brother, Lonnie, would be there as well, and it wouldn’t be long before they were arguing about the right way to raise children.  Lonnie disapproved of Maggie’s relaxed parenting style – and to be honest, Maggie didn’t care for Lonnie strict disciplinarian approach.  Having a major blowout sometime during the week seemed inevitable; Maggie was desperate for a way to prevent their fights from ruining everyone’s vacation.

A mistake people often make when fighting, particularly when things get emotional, is to think of feelings as a zero-sum game: we both feel angry or hurt, but by the end of the fight only one person will get to have their feelings legitimated (the “winner”), and the other person will have to make amends and say sorry (“the loser”). 

This mentality, while completely natural, is mistaken.  Feelings don’t have to be a zero-sum game.  Here’s a tip for navigating difficult conversations despite the unavoidable strong emotions we all have when interacting with family members: you can show empathy without giving up your point of view. Below are some specific ways to do this:

  • Summarize the other person’s point of view
  • Ask questions to make sure you got it right
  • Pivot to sharing your perspective

The next time that Lonnie and Maggie get into a fight about how they parent their respective children, she might say something like this:

“Lon, I understand that you disapprove of what you see as my overly lenient way of parenting.  I know you love me and love my children, and you feel like I am doing them a disservice, which pains you.  And I can understand how it must feel to you to watch someone you care about make such a big mistake.  I’m sure that is very frustrating. 

Do you feel like I understand your perspective?” 

Saying that communicates empathy, but is not a concession.   Then, Maggie could say:

“Let me tell you how I feel.  I don’t agree with the way you raise your kids either.  I love you and your family, and it pains me just as much to see what I consider to be the mistakes you are making.  But even more than that, I am hurt that you don’t respect my choices but instead constantly try to make me be different.  We are different people, and parent differently.  Why can’t you accept that?”

Showing empathy first may soothe Lonnie enough to be able to hear Maggie’s point of view.  And notice that Maggie can empathize with Lonnie’s frustration and pain, yet simultaneously feel her own feelings of hurt and disrespect. 

Empathy means showing the other person you understand how they feel.  It doesn’t mean you agree; it just means you can see how they see things and how and why they feel the way that they do.  The beauty of empathy is that you can empathize with someone even when you still passionately disagree, and even when you have your own strong emotions. 


Wishing everyone all the best for 2019!