Exploring the Depth of Familial Conflict

Applying Mediation Principles to Family Dynamics

The Vail Valley may be a dreamscape, but its denizens and visitors are not immune to conflict, frictions that require smoothing so that attention can be paid to enjoying the Valley’s myriad natural and cultural benedictions. Mediation is one such method for guiding the resolution of disputes both local and global.

Mediation is a magical and misunderstood process, millenniums old yet primed for modernity. At its base, it is simply a means by which to resolve conflict using a neutral facilitator, the mediator that provides a voice of reason and imbues the warring parties with the power to control their own destinies.

Despite being mostly associated with the legal system, mediation is that system’s antipode, a mechanism that brings people together and does not push them apart. In its common conception, mediation is a formal procedure, subject to the trappings of the serious: lawyers, suits, written agreements and the like.

However, mediation’s core principles are so fundamental that they inform conflict of any type, whether in the workplace, with friends or even within a household or the vacation rental in which the family has congregated. Identifying common ground and vindicating the importance of communication, respect, cooperation and patience in our daily lives has the tendency to reduce the inflammation of quarrels or even avoid conflicts altogether.

It is the particular dynamics of the family that make resolution of such internecine disputes so crucial.  More so than in any other context, one cannot persistently avoid interaction with one’s immediate kin, or at least, it is extremely challenging and distasteful to do so. A job can be quit, a pal ghosted, but skedaddling on your folks or kids is decidedly anathema to the values that this Valley holds dear.

Nor are a family’s routine struggles ripe for discussion in a fluorescent conference room with a retired judge. Clans that end up in court may need mediation of a direr type but perhaps could have earlier applied its tenets and prevented the need for judicial intervention. Mediation is both a solution and a prophylactic, an adaptable method for the infinite needs of families on the inevitable and ever-shifting spectrum between unhappy and happy.

The bedrock of mediation is the identification of common ground. When parties have differing perspectives, it helps for each to realize that their supposed enemy shares their interests or traumas.  The empathy created thereby can smooth the accumulated frictions that brought the conflict to a head.  In the intertwinements of family and the family-adjacent, there are myriad opportunities to make productive use of these shared experiences. Even if, and perhaps especially when, the collective’s history is not positive, it creates a camaraderie that sets the stage for resolution.

Almost all conflicts are caused by a breakdown in communication. Comments may be misunderstood, brothers may refuse to speak with each other and discussions can be unnecessarily aggressive. To prevent these deleterious outcomes, it is important to establish an environment in which all family members, whatever their age or spot on the real/perceived hierarchy, feel comfortable sharing their perspectives, bringing up hard truths or just venting their, admittedly, irrational thoughts. Agreement is both unnecessary and impossible; it is the existence of the dialogue that matters. Open discussion will remove the frequent problems associated with inaccurate assumptions.
Respect is a critical corollary to communication. Often, this is perceived as a top-down admonition; kids need to honor their parents, regardless of the parents’ actions or omissions. But, respect must flow in all directions; even a four-year-old’s viewpoint is valid. Children are not only particularly sensitive but also amazingly insightful.

Indeed, the youth of this Valley are awe-inspiring not only in their athletic feats, but in the maturity of their outlooks.  By ignoring their inputs, it not only creates tension and resentment but also may gloss over a workable resolution. Making family members feel truly heard requires a deep dedication to listening. This includes eye contact, non-dismissive body language and a recap of the conversation to confirm that the speaker was heard as intended.

"Conflict resolution is a team effort that inherently requires cooperation."

Conflict resolution is a team effort that inherently requires cooperation. Families are already pre-formed teams, sometimes more Bad News Bears than Bronx Bombers, but already predisposed toward understanding that successful collective action requires shared goals and clearly-delineated, individual responsibilities. Families have the repeat experience with each other necessary to effectively identify ideal roles for all. But, care should be taken to not pigeonhole; just because your son can lift heavy objects does not mean that he cannot also be a sensitive caretaker.

Families, like the environment that surrounds us, are perpetual institutions, their lineages streaking across the time-space continuum. They therefore should understand the long view, the perspective that all will eventually pass and be lost to the vestiges of history. By promoting patience, families can recognize that what seems like an abomination in the current moment will be a mere blip in the rearview soon enough. This means giving your daughter space to work through her feelings; this means forgiving your dad when he is having a bad day; this means taking a deep, collective breath and revisiting a discussion at a more opportune time.

None of mediation’s principles standing alone can solve conflict. Combined to create a holistic approach to dispute resolution, they can be revelatory and transformative, creating epiphanies that consolidate the love that is at the heart of every family. Armed with this strength, families will be best prepared to savor the adventures that surely await.