Five Guidelines for a Fair Family Fight

You’ve seen the caricature of a classic fight between a wife and a husband on their anniversary. She’s furious and doling out the silent treatment. He’s baffled and asking what she wants from him. "If I have to tell you, it’s ruined," she answers. He groans, knowing that unless he suddenly acquires the capacity to read her mind, he’s never going to win. He gets ready for another night on the couch.

Chances are you recognize the scenario; perhaps you’ve even lived some version of this at home. Do you recognize that you live subtle versions of this scenario at work, every time you have a heated disagreement?

If there is a single point of origin for most fights, it’s the point of unmet or unexpressed expectations. We all have expectations for relationships, and we often assume these expectations are both obvious and reasonable. Ask anyone who is in a close relationship with you, and they will tell that neither is true.

Family fights, both at home and at work, can be some of the most heated discussions of all. After all, we expect more from our family members; we assume more about our family members; and the stakes are always high.

In over a decade of working closely with family businesses to clarify core values and develop sustainable lifestyle and financial plans, I’ve seen unmet expectations and other unproductive communication behaviors threaten to sabotage family relationship and businesses. Here are five guidelines I share with clients to help them work through disagreements and build solutions that work for all parties.

Establish a Safe Environment and Agree on Ground Rules

When people feel threatened, they spend their energy on protecting themselves, not on communicating productively. Committing to treat one another with respect is a first step to creating a safe environment in which people cooperate, even when they don’t agree.

Agreeing to ground rules about your discussion can help family members to move from defensiveness and sabotage behaviors to engaging in productive problem solving. Here are ground rules to consider:

  • Everyone gets a turn to talk
  • No one is interrupted
  • No one is a target of sarcasm
  • Everyone stays in the present--no bringing up past arguments or hurts
  • No one’s character is attacked
  • If a person cannot control his or her emotions, that person temporarily leaves the room

Ask Questions to Uncover Others’ Expectations and Feelings

When you disagree with a family member, it’s tempting to jump in and defend your position. According to Stephen Covey, the path to effectiveness lies first in seeking to understand the other person. Only when you understand the other party’s point of view, both the logic and emotion behind it, is it time to communicate your own point of view.

Ask open-ended questions (ones that require more than a yes or no answer) until you believe you understand the other party’s thoughts and feelings. Then check for understanding by summarizing what the other person has said. Once that person agrees that you understand, you can take turns communicating your own expectations and feelings.

Often, when parties to a disagreement take the time to listen to each other, they discover that the disagreement was the result of a misunderstanding, not a deliberate desire to hurt. If we can listen without jumping to judgment, we can often find and fix the misunderstanding.

Be Willing to Examine & Share Your Own Expectations and Feelings

When something goes wrong in a relationship, or when you find yourself feeling shocked or offended at a family member’s behavior, take a few deep breaths and think about your own expectations. Think about the gap that has occurred between what you expected and what actually happened.

Ask yourself a few questions:

  • Did I clearly communicate my expectations?
  • Were my expectations fair and reasonable?
  • Did a change take place without me adjusting my expectations?
  • Have I failed to listen to another’s point of view?

Be willing to share your feelings without attacking others. State clear and observable behavior as a fact, then end with how this makes you feel; e.g. "When you do not answer my questions (fact) I feel rejected (personal feeling)."

Avoid Fixating on a Specific Outcome

One of the biggest expectations people bring into arguments is that they have the right answer. Behind this position is an assumption that there is only one right answer. If this assumption is true, there must be a winner and a loser in every disagreement. No wonder we take defensive postures toward each other!

In the complex issues of life, more than on right answer may exist for any one problem. There are many workable answers, and we need open minds to find them.

When you find yourself digging in your heels over a specific position, and other members of your family digging in their heels over other specific positions, call time out. Spend 15 minutes as a family generating as many possible solutions or approaches to the problem as you can¡ªwithout judging the ideas. Then take a break. When you return, establish criteria you can all agree on for your solution. Only then will it be time to discuss the merits of various solutions and often one that no one person has invented yet.

Commit to a Fair Process When You Can’t Agree

At times family members simply can’t manage a disagreement on their own; yet, they still have to move forward. It’s important to commit to a process to handle this situation before it comes up. Commit to an objective standard or authority figure and agree to abide by the decisions that result from the process.

As a family, discuss what outside authority is appropriate, based on the values you share. For some families, a sacred text, pastor, or other religious leader is the appropriate authority. For others, a matriarch or patriarch will be more appropriate. For others, a board of outside advisors, arbitrator, or family court will be the agreed upon authority. The key is to agree in advance on where you will turn when you can’t resolve an issue on your own.

Schedule some time with your family members to review the five guidelines in this article. Make a commitment to treat each other with respect, even when you are angry. Begin now to talk about each other’s expectations and feelings and continue that conversation. Decide together what criteria you will use when you can’t work out a disagreement on your own. Finally, practice generating multiple solutions to problems that come up. After all, when you learn to fight fairly, everyone wins and disagreement may just end up as an opportunity yet undiscovered.


About the author, Robb McKinney, CFS, CLTC, CRPC® is Founder and Wealth Manager at Bridgeview Wealth. Robb leads clients through the proprietary The Ultimate Discovery ExperienceTM, which helps family to clarify core values and passions as well as share expectations in a safe and respectful environment. This information becomes the foundation to create and implement a sustainable financial plan as well as a "lifestyle plan" that leverages success for (and passes the family values to) future generations.