4 Steps to De-Escalating Stepfamily Conflict

When you think of conflict, what images immediately come to mind? Do you have a positive image of conflict, or do you picture frustrated people yelling at each other? Many people today have a negative view of conflict, and they try to avoid it at all costs. In fact, conflict avoidance is the primary stumbling block to conflict resolution, according to a national study conducted by Ron L. Deal and David H. Olson. Of the 50,000 couples that Deal and Olson surveyed, 63 percent admitted to going out of their way to avoid conflict with their partner. This could be because they do not want to hurt their partner’s feelings or because they never learned how to resolve conflict in a constructive way.

Resolving Conflict

Take a moment and think about your answers to these questions:

  • How were conflicts resolved in your family as you were growing up?
  • What lessons have you learned about conflict from your own experiences with family members, friends, and coworkers?
  • When you have a conflict with someone, how do you usually handle it?

Now that you’ve thought about these questions, think about how your experiences shape the way you handle conflict today. Another way to become aware of how you handle conflict is by taking the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode self-assessment. This assessment will help you discover which conflict-handling modes you default to and which ones you avoid. Self-awareness is the first step. Once you become aware of the five different modes– collaborating, competing, compromising, accommodating, and avoiding– you’ll be able to recognize which ones you’re using and which ones others are using. This will prepare you to handle the situation better.

In a stepfamily, you will encounter numerous situations that will allow you to practice your conflict resolution skills. Having these skills will help you in your professional life as well as your personal life. Keep your own experiences in the back of your mind as we walk through a simple 4-step process to work through interest based conflict resolution. Interest based conflict resolution is a strategy that can be used to resolve differences through identifying interests, listening for understanding, and exploring options for resolution together. 

  1. Identify and voice how the other person is feeling. “You seem frustrated” or “I see you are upset.” When you verbalize how the other person is feeling, you are acknowledging how they feel based on your observations. You are bringing their feelings out in the open, and now you can discuss them.
  2. Listen for understanding. This is key. When you are listening for understanding, you are actively listening to the message without immediately judging it. You are trying to understand the other person’s position or interest. What is the other person’s concerns? Ask questions to get more information and to encourage the speaker to share. You are not planning how you’re going to respond or thinking about what you’re going to say. You can try simply saying, “tell me more” and then really listen while the other person talks.
  3. Empathize with them. “I understand how you feel. Anyone in your position would feel the same way.” It’s important to be sincere in your expression of empathy. If you can’t empathize with how they are feeling, do not lie, but try putting yourself in their shoes. Imagine how they might be feeling. You can modify how you respond to them, while still acknowledging how it must be difficult for them. “This must be a tough time for you.” If you need more information, you can say, “help me understand what is concerning for you.”
  4. Brainstorm solutions together. Focus on what you can do, not on what you can’t do. Now you have an opportunity to work collaboratively to figure out a solution to the problem. Be open-minded during this step of the process and become joint problem-solvers. “Let’s look at what the options are to address your concerns.” Or “what can we do to accomplish our goal?”

How does this work? 

Let’s look at an example of how this process works. Imagine Kathy, a stepmom, is frustrated because Andy, her stepson, ignored her when she got home. She walks in the door, says “hello” to him, asks him how his day was, and receives no response. Then David, her husband, walks in the room and his son immediately starts telling him about how he scored the most points during his basketball game at recess.

Later, Kathy tells her husband about how hurt she feels when Andy ignores her. She explains that it makes her feel invisible. Now, imagine David says, “He probably didn’t hear you. Don’t take it personally.” How is Kathy going to respond? Kathy is going to feel like David doesn’t understand how she feels, and she is going to further explain her position. She’ll probably feel like she has to defend herself. Instead, let’s imagine her husband says, “You feel hurt. That’s too bad! Let’s talk about what we can do about it.” By validating her feelings, David de-escalates the situation, and now they can explore solutions.

Your Turn

Now reflect for a moment on your previous experiences with conflict. Would you do anything differently based on this 4-step process?