Part One in a three-part series applying insights from conflict styles to parent-child relationships. By Laura Bowles, coach and mediator, Style Matters trainer, and founder of The New Normal, LLC.
Being a parent changes many things! For me, my conflict style was one of those.
On the Style Matters inventory, my highest score is Harmonizing. This means that when things get tense, I tend to focus on keeping others happy, and I am quick to let go of my own goals and agendas if necessary to achieve that. I think of myself as flexible and responsive to others!
Conflict comes with parenting. However, it got complicated when I became a parent. I quickly realized that I couldn’t let go of my agenda all of the time. I have a duty to set boundaries with my kids, and often it’s right to be firm about those boundaries. You have to wear clothes! Brush your teeth! Don’t jump into water that’s over your head if you can’t swim!
Putting yourself last all the time isn’t the answer. I knew from the start that I have to protect my children. But it took a while to realize that being my best as a parent requires me to also protect myself. I need to stay healthy. I need to eat and sleep well. I need a few moments of quiet in my week. If I chronically sacrifice such basic requirements in order to keep everyone else happy, I undermine my ability to function and be a good parent, or even a “good enough” parent. With my first child came far more conflict than I had ever dealt with before, and eventually I realized that trying to keep others happy all the time wasn’t working anymore.
Consider not just the relationship but also the agenda or role you are responsible to carry. When my son was three and my daughter not even yet one, I was lucky to be introduced to Style Matters for the first time. The concept of weighing agenda and relationship when approaching conflict (explained in 3 minute video at left) gave me language to make sense of many of the challenges I was facing as a parent. Some of these were internal conflicts, playing out in my head as I struggled with priorities. Others were external, with my children or others around me. Style Matters gave me insights that helped me become a better, more loving parent.
Recognize there’s a time and place for all five styles. A freeing insight for me in Style Matters was recognizing that there is a time and place for each of the five conflict styles. Conflict responses that might be exactly right in one situation might be quite damaging in another.
For example, most of the time I’m eager to support my son in his determination to run and explore freely. But not along a busy street. There I insist that he accept my firm grip on his hand. No matter how he feels about it, in this dangerous place I have a duty to impose rules of safety on him. I have an agenda! You can’t be a good parent without using the Directing conflict style with children at times. The challenge is to achieve what author Ron Kraybill calls “graceful Directing”.
Cooperating takes thought and practice. A conflict style I find particularly rewarding is Cooperating, which involves a high commitment both to my own agenda and to the relationship. Recognizing that the essence of Cooperating is doing these things simultaneously has helped me be more strategic in doing it well. I find it an interesting challenge to figure out if and how this style can work in difficult circumstances.
For example, when we are getting ready for the day in the morning, I have a big agenda regarding time. My child, on the other hand, has a different set of needs – to feel connected to me before we part for the day, and to have some power and recognition in our interaction. These are both important agendas, and they compete!
It is liberating for me to remember that it is possible, and highly desirable with some extra effort on my part, to meet both my needs in full and my child’s needs in full. Often it’s not a true either/or situation, it’s both.
So I ask myself: How can I be playful – or give my child some choices – even as we are hustling around getting ready to rush out the door for a just-in-time departure?
Conflict style awareness has also helped me to be more honest with myself, to see things about my behaviors I didn’t see before. The goals I hold as a parent seem important to me and I can be quite insistent about them. As in, the food is hot and ready to eat, so “Come for dinner right now!” Or sometimes I just want to read my book in peace. Or there’s a blog post nearly finished and it’s important to get it done.
In those situations, my dedication to an important goal moves me to act and speak firmly on its behalf. It’s easy to forget in such moments that my children have needs that are also important – to be “seen” by their mother, to experience me being truly with them, to feel deeply loved by me, regardless to the state of the house, their room, or the schedule for the day. When I lose sight of those needs, it’s easy to speak in demanding tones that do not adequately convey my love for them.
Pondering how to use the Cooperating conflict style helped me to see that I can often be clear and assertive about my needs, but also add things that address a relationship component as well – a softening of tone, a slight increase in flexibility, a touch or hug that reassures.
It’s not easy to get the right balance. Sometimes I focus more on my agenda than I would like. Other times, I let relationship goals get in the way when I should stand my ground on an issue. Having this tool for thinking about things doesn’t guarantee I get it right all the time.
But knowing that it is normal and natural for these two components to compete with each other helps me understand why conflicts are inevitable with my children, and gives me strategies to mindfully move through them.
When I make mistakes or a conflict moves in a direction that I had hoped to avoid, the conflict styles framework helps me to take a step back and systematically review my options. A different conflict style might bring a very different result in the next try.
There is a principle in Style Matters that I hope to expand on as my children mature: Make reflective conversation about conflict responses a routine part of life. As in: “I think I was a little too upset with you this morning when you were late for school. I wish I had found a way to speak more kindly. What did you think about that?” A comment like that sends a child – or an adult partner – two important messages: 1) I care deeply about you (even when I may not always sound that way) and 2) It’s helpful to come back later and talk about what happens in times of conflict.