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Talk It Out: Negotiating Family Conflicts

Why does he get to watch TV?"

"Because he finished his homework."

"But I had more homework! That's not fair! That stinks!"

"Just finish up; it won't take long."

"I hate this! Why do I have to finish? You're not helping me!"

It's one hour before bedtime, and my 11-year-old son Gary has two math problems left to do; his older brother, Dennis, has already finished his work.

Unfortunately, this kind of scene had become all too typical, with variations on "I don't want to!" and "But you have to!" repeated over and over, week after week, as if we believed our arguments would suddenly become more persuasive after a thousand repetitions. Their mom and I are divorced, and my weekends with the boys had started to feel like they routinely devolved into a battle of wills with Gary.

An argument that lasted all day drained time and energy from the entire weekend. Something left unresolved Sunday night stayed unresolved until next week. And dropping off the boys in midconflict left their mom with an unexpected and unwelcomed problem. I often ended up resolving conflicts by giving in, ignoring them, or taking quick authoritarian action.

During Gary's sixth-grade year I was buoyed with hope. Gary was selected by his teacher to be part of the peer conflict manager program at his elementary school. As a participant, he would help settle playground spats and other disputes. "We especially wanted Gary to participate. He works so well with others," his teacher told my ex-wife. She just smiled and nodded. Later we wondered if this was the same little boy who has been known to go ten rounds with his brother over who gets to use the bathroom first.

Gary went through a two-day workshop on conflict management for kids, and continued to attend meetings to evaluate the program and sharpen skills.

I asked Gary detailed questions about his training and how the program worked. "Why do you want to know so much?" he asked. I told him that when I worked as a lawyer it was like being a conflict manager, and I was interested in the topic. I didn't divulge the secret hope that his new position and skills would bring with it a windfall of domestic peace.

But having a conflict manager in the house did no such thing. The battles continued, and my patience wore thin. So it was that one weekend, after Gary spent an entire afternoon arguing with and yelling at Dennis, I separated the boys and tried once again to find out what was bothering Gary.

"I don't want to talk. Why do we always have to talk?" he asked.

The irony of the situation was not lost on me. Conflict managers make people talk it out. "What would you do if we were on the school playground?" I asked.

This was like throwing gasoline on the fire. It was as if I had thrown his responsibility in his face. Gary was only 11 years old. I was expecting a lot from him. He was just being a kid: He wanted things his way.

I realized I shouldn't have expected him to shift into conflict-manager mode. That was my responsibility. Didn't I have conflict-management skills, too? Couldn't I figure out a solution, if I really wanted to?

I reverted to Lesson One in the conflict-manager manual: Just listen. When I did, Gary unleashed a tirade: It was boring to talk things out with me; he was the only one who had to talk; Dennis never had to do this; I was wasting his time; I was making him talk against his will; his mom never made him talk things out, except when he wanted to talk with her.

He paused. I told Gary I heard his concerns, realizing that maybe for the first time I really had heard them. Talking with me was hard; we seemed to be doing it all the time, and only when he was in trouble; having to continually process what was happening to him made him feel lousy; it all seemed boring because nothing ever came of the discussions; and we were using up our weekend together.

"If I know why you're so angry," I said, "maybe I can avoid making you more angry for the rest of the day. I know that talking about these problems is very hard, and something you would rather not do. Is that right?"

Gary nodded.

"Well, I need something, and you need something, so maybe there is something we can agree on."

"I don't see how. I don't want to talk about it," Gary said.

"I need to find out what's bugging you, and you want our talks to be less painful. I think we can figure this out. You tell me what will make it easier to talk to me, and I'll see whether I can agree."

He thought. He came up with ground rules: no pressure, and no yelling. He told me other ways to help him say what was bothering him.

"I can live with those things," I said. "But there are some things I need. Can you live with these?" I rattled off my list: Sitting up and listening; agreeing on a time limit for our discussions; and not quitting until the time is up. He agreed.

"Anything else?" I asked.

"I want to know that you still like me."

I made sure he knew I heard this last thing. "Of course I like you, and love you, even when we argue."

We memorialized the agreement on a small pad, with Gary's conditions on one sheet, and mine on another. I put the sheets in my wallet.

"Is that it?" he asked.

"Yes, for today. All we need to do is remember this next time we need to talk."

"Are we done? Do we have more to talk about?"

"Only if you're still mad."

"I'm fine." He smiled and bolted out to play with Dennis.

We didn't forge a major international treaty, and I still don't know what makes Gary so ornery at times. Our new understanding has hardly eliminated all our conflicts. I have to admit, I sometimes get tired of having to act like the adult in these conflicts.

Progress tends to be incremental, triumphs modest, and even grown-ups become more focused on winning an argument than resolving it.

But on this day, at least, there was family peace for the rest of the afternoon. And I think something had changed: After years of trying to get Gary to talk, I had finally taken the time to listen.