Q. I have a bonus family. My husband has two kids and I have two kids. We’ve added a son three years ago. We have tried your suggestion of a family discussion to air differences, but things seem to spin out of control. What’s good ex-etiquette?
A. Family discussions are great ways to problem-solve, but bonus families must be careful that they remain a forum for conflict resolution and not just venting sessions. If the discussion is filled with “you always do this” or "you never do that,” the conversation is bound to spin out of control.
Why? Because it’s human nature to hear two words first and lose sight of the gist of the observation — always and never. Once those words are entered into the discussion, people are on the defense and not listening. Their response is rarely, “Really? I’m sorry. I didn’t realize.” It’s usually, “I do not!” or “No I don’t!” The common response is then, “You do too!” Back and forth until the observation is lost and you’re fighting about fighting.
Anytime you air your differences or are looking for a solution to a problem with someone, stay away from the blame game. Teach family members to use “I messages” to explain how they feel. There’s a very simple model you can follow that really works in discussions.
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Using “I FEEL,” not “you always”:
— State the feeling.
— State the offending behavior.
— State the effect it has on you.
— State what you would like to see.
So, "you always yell at me for no reason!” — something that kids say all the time — becomes, “I feel hurt (feeling) when you raise your voice (offending behavior). I feel like I want to cry and I don’t want to listen (the effect it has on you) and I wish you would just talk to me without yelling at me (what you want to see)."
Now you are talking about you, not blaming them.
The family discussion model I often suggest — sitting down with rules your family has devised specifically for your family — was born out of necessity. When my husband and I wanted to talk to the kids about whatever we saw needed to improve, we approached it from a “we’re all in this together" approach.
The family discussion worked really well. The amusing thing was when the kids called a family discussion on us. We were floored. We had no idea something we were doing — working too many hours — was bothering them. When my daughter was 8 and my bonusdaughter was 9 they put their heads together and called a family discussion. They very clearly stated their case and said what they would like to see (cut back on the work hours). My husband and I found it very amusing but were also very grateful the model we had put in place worked. It gave everyone the feeling they could respectfully discuss how they felt.
So take a look at your approach. Are you using the family discussion model as a problem-solving tool, or a way to complain? You may have to tweak what you are doing for it to work for your specific needs. Try to stay flexible. That’s good ex-etiquette.