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by Lisa Gabardi, Ph.D. and Karen Bonnell, ARNP, MS
Conflict is an inevitable part of any significant relationship; whether with colleagues at work, with friends, and with family. And when you experience conflict, you need an effective way to manage your experience, communicate effectively, and ultimately resolve the conflict. This is especially true for co-parents after divorce. Children need their parents to be able to communicate, make parenting decisions, and resolve differences on behalf of their children. When parents effectively communicate and manage conflict, they create a safe and secure environment for their children. When children feel safe and secure, they are able to focus on the task of childhood; when parents model skillful communication, they are able to develop the essentials skills necessary for well-being and resiliency in adulthood:
Children are able to develop emotion regulation, effective problem-solving, empathy, and the ability to consider options, consequences, and plan for the future.
The five basic skills described below are those necessary for parents (both married and divorced) to manage their differences respectfully and communicate effectively. These skills can also be adapted and applied to conflicts in a variety of relationships.
The Conflict Communication Circle: These skills are non-linear but do build on each other.
- Calm Remaining calm allows the most direct path to your problem-solving brain – the prefrontal cortex. Calm helps you move from feeling threatened, from reacting out of the fight-flight-freeze emotional midbrain to carefully consider how you want to respond. If you can’t calm down when stressed, you won’t be able to think clearly and flexibly, you won’t be able to listen and attempt understanding, you won’t be able to consider solutions or the feelings of others (namely your children). Without Calm, you can’t practice the other important communication skills. You need to be able to manage stress and soothe your emotions enough to find Calm. Out of the calm, you can be civil, respectful, and more business-like. This involves self-awareness and strategies for soothing your own upset when triggered – this can include reaching out to others to “talk you off the ledge” when you’d rather “fly off the handle” or break down.
- Contained communication creates safety in the relationship by sticking to agreed-upon rules for interacting. At the most basic, contained conversations are physically and emotionally safe for all participants. You create ground rules about what you will discuss, who is involved in the discussion, where you will talk and for how long. These parameters create predictability. Following the relationship and communication guidelines reliably builds trust. For co-parents, this means agreed upon methods of communication may include agenda for co-parent planning meetings, and respect for either parent to request a break or to discontinue the discussion until a facilitator can assist with constructive problem-solving. For parents and children, you demonstrate your ability to contain communication through predictability, appropriate limit-setting and follow-through, and respect for your children’s feelings even when discipline is indicated.
- Clarity As described above, with calm comes clarity. There are different aspects of clarity that lead to healthy and meaningful communication: clarity with yourself and clarity in understanding the other person (or people) in the conversation. Clarity with your self involves an awareness of your own needs, goals, highest values, and self-management of your emotional triggers. Have you thought through your own issues and concerns, have you examined your own contribution to the problem, are you emotionally ready to participate in a potentially emotional conversation? Clarity of understanding other(s) include setting your own point of view aside for a moment with full attention on understanding the point of view of the person speaking. Can you discover the essence of their message, do you hear the values that you both may share and where your values diverge, and are you able to appreciate the emotional needs of the speaker without judgment?. Listening fully to another from a place of calm and clarity, builds understanding. Listening to understand doesn’t imply agreement, but promotes understanding of the perspectives of each person. From clear, respectful dialogue, understanding grows the potential to develop a shared perspective that incorporates common ground and shared goals as well as an understanding of differences. From here, the participants can begin constructive problem-solving and/or conflict resolution.
- Creative Discussing potential solutions to problems and creating a shared understanding involves the ability to think flexibly. It acknowledges differences without judgment, without the need to be right in honor of building relationship and remaining engaged in the conversation for the purpose of a shared goal. For co-parents, that may be to raise healthy, resilient children – preserve their once-in-a-lifetime childhood, be the best co-parent pair for their children they can be. Creativity is an outgrowth of flexible thinking and the commitment that we’re “better together” in solving this problem, which makes way to brainstorm options and consider outcomes.
- Child-Centered is the mind-set parents cultivate to serve the interests of their children. It involves the ability to separate your own thoughts, feelings, and perspective from your child’s developmental and emotional needs and acting responsibly from that awareness. Communication between parents often begins with the intention to be child-centered as a high value. And any decisions made on behalf of children ends with evaluating the option for child-centered values. These high-end values reflect what parents want for their children, what children need from their parents, and who the parents want to be as parents. Keep in mind decisions that are good for parents are often “child-centered” when those decisions strengthen the over-all two-home family functioning or include healthy adaptation. Child-centered parenting involves strong communication and effective conflict management. Healthy conflict or disagreement is bound to be a part of every relationship. Unhealthy chronic or toxic conflict harms relationships, negatively impacts physical and emotional health of the recipients. As parents, we want to guard against on-going toxic conflict – anything that causes undue stress for growing children or puts them in the middle of their parents or in any way negatively impacts their relationship with either parent. Low conflict allows children to be relaxed in two-homes, free to love both parents and their families in two homes, and at ease transitioning between homes.
Enacting the 5 C’s might look like this:
Mom and Dad face a conflict about whether to allow their child to change middle schools that would disrupt the status quo, increase the transportation burden to and from school for one parent, and reflects the values of one parent much in a way that the other does not share.
They each would first make sure that they are able to keep their emotions in check and remain calm, respectful and business-like during their discussion. Mom is aware that if Dad raises his voice or blames it will be a trigger for her and she has considered ways to manage her fearfulness and reactivity. Dad is aware that when Mom makes statements that she knows what is best, appears to be the “expert” or talks in absolutes it triggers him. He has considered how he might respond if this arises. Both have set an intention consciously to remain focused on their son, Roy and to have some clarity about how he feels, and the importance of being consistent as parents and keeping their conflict low as a priority, regardless of the outcome of this particular issue.
Mom and Dad have each taken time before they talk to be clear about what’s most important about this issue to them, why, and how it relates to their long term goals for Roy and what he will learn from the experience. They each try to speak clearly, briefly, and state their point of view without blame and minimizing judgments. They commit to taking turns talking and listening. They try to summarize and paraphrase the other parent’s point of view and feelings, whether they agree with it or not.
They then, together, try to find any points of agreement and any areas in which they may ultimately want the same long term goals for their son. They look for possible compromises. When both feel sufficiently heard, they try to brainstorm and discuss options for a decision or solution. They discuss whether a possible solution meets their long term goals for parenting Roy and take into consideration how Roy feels and how he will be impacted at each home. Their son’s well-being is more important to them than their own individual feelings, pride, or attachment to a particular solution.
What’s most important is the way these parents handle their conversation. Roy will benefit from having two parents that respect each other and work together more than he will benefit from the outcome of any particular decision the parents make.
Try putting these skills into practices in your relationships. Skills to manage conflict and communicate well are empowering! They will help you grow as a person, improve your relationships, and help your child foster well-being and resilience.
I want to thank my co-author, Karen Bonnell, ARNP, MS for collaborating on the development of the conflict communication circle and on this article. Karen Bonnell is a Divorce and Co-Parent Coach and Mediator with a practice in Bellevue, Washington. Karen Bonnell is author of The Co-Parents’ Handbook: Raising Well-Adjusted, Resilient, and Resourceful Kids in a Two-Home Family from Little Ones to Young Adults and The Parenting Plan Handbook: A Comprehensive Guide to Building a Strong, Child-Centered Parenting Plan. She is a well-respected practitioner, author, speaker, and trainer. For more information go to http://coachmediateconsult.com/.