Reducing Family Arguments, Conflict, and Debate: 5 Tips to Keep Friction to a Minimum

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By Lauren Thomas Hale, MA

A family is a complicated thing.  Gathered around a holiday meal or celebrating a mutual milestone, your family may experience a host of highs and lows as you navigate a myriad of emotions and perspectives about each other’s respective lives.

Family members are usually the people who love us, support us, and encourage us. However, they can also be the people with whom we fight the most.

Why are family arguments often more stressful than other arguments? To start with, it can feel terrible to fight with the people who know us the best. Moreover, your conflicts may be rooted in long-standing, unresolved issues that can bubble to the surface during family gatherings and sudden close, daily interaction.

Even if you aren’t actually discussing those old issues, they can play a role in how you feel about each other. Most of us don’t want to feel resentful or angry with those closest to us. Therefore, it is beneficial to learn how to keep friction to a minimum. Here are five helpful tips for the holidays and beyond:

1. Simply Don’t Engage

It takes two people to argue. If you refuse to participate in the argument, it can’t go anywhere. By not responding or reacting, you diffuse the situation.

Of course, this is much easier said than done. Your family members know exactly how to get under your skin. If they are used to arguing with you in a certain way, then they will be uncomfortable when you don’t engage. Therefore, they may try even harder to pull you into the argument.

If at all possible, disengage. Options include:

  • Taking slow, deep breaths until you can respond calmly

  • Counting backward from ten (or one hundred!)

  • Doing a body scan to notice tension and release it

  • Telling your family member that you need time to think about what they’ve said

  • Respectfully stating that you don’t want to have a disagreement, and calmly walking away

2. Ask Questions

Arguments happen because both people believe they are right. You are each locked into your own positions. Moreover, you are trying to change the other person’s mind. Instead, try becoming curious about the other person’s position. You don’t have to agree with them, but you can work to understand them without trying to change their opinion. As you soften your position by getting to know theirs, they may do the same for you.

3. Use “I” Statements

Speak from a place of your own truth. State what you think, feel, and believe. However, make it clear that you know that this is just your experience. Express an interest in sharing your experience without blaming, shaming, or arguing. Use the following framework:

  • I feel (blank)

  • When (blank happens)

  • This makes me want to (blank)

  • I’d like to do (blank) instead

For example, “I feel anxious when people start raising their voices. This makes me want to run away. I’d like to be able to have a quiet conversation instead.” This is more effective than, “You are so mean, and if you yell at me again, I’m leaving.”

4. Use “Yes, and” Statements

Another effective way to reduce family arguments is to agree with everyone. Acknowledge that they have a valid point of view. Use, “yes, and” statements to convey that you are on their side. At the same time, these statements allow you to speak your truth.

For example, let’s say that your brother-in-law calls you selfish. You can argue until your blue in the face about how unselfish you are. However, he will probably not agree. Instead, try saying, “yes, sometimes I can be a little bit selfish, and I do that because I am scared that if I don’t stand up for myself, then no one else will.”

5. Open Up Communication Slowly and Steadily

The midst of an argument is not the time to resolve big family issues. It takes time and hard work to solve family arguments. Therefore, start slowly. Begin by just opening up to your family members in small ways. Share more of yourself. Over time, it will become easier for everyone to calmly share their truths.

There are many underlying issues that lead to family arguments. Therapy can help you identify the issues, work toward resolution and understanding, and learn how to make family gatherings the joy you know they can be.

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Lauren Thomas Hale, MA, LPC Intern, works with couples and individuals at the Relationship Counseling Center of Austin. Lauren’s use of mindfulness practices in her therapeutic approach helps her clients enter a state of mind which is calm, receptive, and balanced. To schedule your appointment with Lauren, you can reach her at (512) 270-4883, ext. 114, or request an appointment with her on the RCC Austin Scheduling page.