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Dealing With Conflict

  • Conflict
    There is nothing unusual, unnatural or to be feared about conflict. It is a natural part of all human relationships. We are all different, we have different personality types, have different ways of looking at things, want different things and we have different likes and dislikes. With people we live with, work with, are friends with and have relationships with when differences occur there is almost certainly going to be conflict. It would be odd for there not to be conflict in any of these circumstances.
    It is not that there is a disagreement that matters, it is how it is handled that can be either positive or negative. It can be dealt with destructively, abusively and disrespectfully OR differences can be resolved constructively and respectfully.
    We learn our own ways of handling disagreements with others – these can become habitual reactions to conflicts. This leads to a pattern developing and what happens in conflict when two people in a close relationship develop these patterns – using their knowledge of each others' buttons and weaknesses the "Dance of Anger" develops – see Self Esteem section of Stepping Stones.
    These negative patterns of "dances" can be changed. It is not easy and does take effort but we can learn to deal with conflict in new ways. Practice makes perfect and if we change our "dance steps" it encourages and models change for the other person. Fear of dealing with conflict leads to avoidance and problems just escalate, and resentment grows.
    A brief summary of transactional analysis (TA)
    Transactional analysis is a model of psychology and psychotherapy that was originally developed by Eric Berne in the 1950's.
    Briefly the theory is that humans operated from one of three ego states in any interaction with another human – a transaction.
    The three ego states are Parent, Adult, and Child. The Parent state is subdivided into nurturing parent or critical parent. The Child is subdivided into playful or wilful child.
    This creates interactions that are:
    I'm okay –You're okay ,  I'm okay – You're not okay,  I'm not okay – You're okay,  I'm not okay –You're not okay.
    With substance use the common transactions are between critical parent (family member) and wilful child (drug user). For transactions that are positive ideally we need to operate adult to adult. If only the family member moves to adult it can provide a model for the drug user to change to adult.
    If you need to read more the ideal references are 'Games People Play' by Eric Berne and 'I'm OK – You're OK' by Thomas A. Harris.
  • Conflict And Substance Use
    Disagreement is common in families where there is drug and alcohol use for various reasons:
    • The drug user's agenda is often very different to other family members
    • Family members have different ideas to drug users on how to spend money – drugs vs other essentials
    • Established patterns of conflict are often stressful, frustrating and non-productive
    We get many telephone calls regarding parents 'waiting up' to confront a drug or alcohol user who has been out getting high. It may be better to wait and address the issue later. It is never a good idea to deal with things:
    •  When the person is "hanging out' for drugs
    •  When the person is intoxicated
    •  When the person is 'coming down' from drugs
    You might think this leaves very little time to do it but the best outcomes come when you pick the right time.
  • Conflict Involves Two Parties
    Conflict involves two parties but others often get caught up in creating persecution, victim and rescuers.
    When two people have a transaction – including conflict- it involves both parties. Both people create what happens, each influences the other and is affected by the other – often a third party gets involved creating a negative triangle – usually exacerbating the conflict and making matters worse, for example-
    Dad: "You're stoned again – I've told you not to use drugs in this house!"
    Son: "What I do is my business – why can't you leave me alone?"
    Mum: "You shouldn't shout at your dad, he is only trying to help."
    Son: "Keep out of this – you're always butting in where you're not wanted."
    Mum: Starts crying.
    Dad: "You've done it again! You're always upsetting your mother."
    Son: "Just fuck off and leave me alone."
    This is a classic example of negative transaction and the consequences of triangulation.
    If we examine each person's feelings they are all legitimate – the son feels nagged at, ganged up on, dad feels angry at the drugs in the house rule being broken and mum is feeling distressed because she was yelled at. It's how they express their feelings and the behaviour that follows that is problematic.
    It is not a matter of who is to blame or that the conflict is a particular person's fault. Usually people are coping as well as they can and the conflict is created inadvertently.
    If we can get away from the idea that we are right and the other person is wrong we can start to find better ways to resolve these issues.
    • If how I behave invites a certain kind of response from the other, then I can choose to behave in a way that invites them to respond in the way I want.
    • If how I respond to others is to accept their invitation to react in a certain way, then I can choose to decline their invitation and react in a different way
    When we choose our response and behave differently, then often other people respond differently to us. What we put out, we get back. Therefore:
    You can't change someone else, but ...
    You can change your response to them.
    This then invites a different response from them, and ...
    They respond this way and change.
    So if you want to change someone, try changing yourself!
    In conflict we tend to either give up or feel powerless to affect the ways someone behaves, or we try to dominate and control them. However, the reality is somewhere between these two – we do have influence.

    Our influence has limits.
    This isn't magic and it doesn't always work – the other person may not 'hear" your invitation as you meant it, or they may decline to take up your invitation.
  • Coping With Other People's Anger
    If we react to others defensively by attacking or withdrawing, conflict often increases. If, instead, we respond assertively we can help to bring the conflict to a level at which emotions can be reduced and negotiating then becomes possible.
    Saying "enough" or "I don't want your anger". Firmly putting our hand up as if stopping traffic. Everyone has the right to say to someone else that they are angry with them. No one has the right to be abusive and aggressive with someone else.
    Making an "action-response-outcome" statement. The three parts of this are "When you ... I feel ... and I ask that ...". This is saying how someone's behaviour leads you to respond and what you want to happen, e.g. "When you break our agreement not to use drugs in our home, I feel so angry and exasperated with your behaviour".
    "I ask again that you honour what we agreed". What is important is that action describes the user's behaviour and not them as a person, response is about your reaction and outcome is what you want and not just a demand.
    Being a 'broken record'. Keep repeating what you want and don't let yourself be deflected away. "I know you say you are making an effort but I still find myself having to deal with your bad manners".
    Compromising or playing for time now and negotiating later when dialogue is possible.
    If all of the above feel too much of a risk because you feel threatened, then withdraw from the situation. This could be anything from a few moments apart to ending all contact.
  • Dealing With Conflict
    One option is to choose not to be in conflict.
    Ideas for using your influence to encourage negotiating include:
    Knowing about conflict – reflect on previous conflict situations you have had with the family member who uses substances. To help, ask yourself:
    •  What were the triggers to conflict starting? Does it even have to start?
    •  Are there any fixed patterns to how conflict goes?
    •  What are the roles people adopt?
    •  What are the payoffs people get for the roles they play?
    •  What are the prices people pay for the role?
    •  What is my responsibility, because this is the bit I can change? (This means taking a good look at yourself.)
    Being assertive
    • Using our personal power assertively, rather than being aggressive, passive or passive-aggressive.
      Assertiveness leads to 'win-win' outcomes
    • Setting boundaries
    • It may be necessary to set a boundary, such as around how you talk about the issues that provoke conflict or around the issue of disagreement. (See Boundary Setting article on this website)
    Developing a dialogue
    In conflict there are usually two or more monologues – people are talking at each other and not listening. Aim for dialogue, which can be done by:
    •  Choosing your moment – e.g. not when someone is under the influence of drink/drugs
    • Slowing down the conversation
    •  Listening – really important – refer to Stepping Stones
    • Being open and honest
    • Respecting the other person. You do not have to like or respect some aspects of a person's behaviour. Respecting someone is recognising that they are more than some of their behaviour and they are worthy of respect as another human being. We are all different and we are all equal
    •  Accepting and understanding the other person's point of view, even when we don't agree. Two people can experience the same thing differently
    •  Using 'I' statements to own what we say – again refer to Stepping Stones
    •  Recognising your part of the responsibility for what has happened
    •  Recognising that others are responsible for the choices they make and their behaviour
    •  Acknowledging how we feel and how the other person feels
    •  Expressing feelings appropriately
    •  Recognising the need for all to exercise both rights and responsibilities
    •  Collaborating rather than confronting
    •  Commenting on what someone does rather than what they say, such as "I note you say again you won't use drugs in the house, but in the past you always have"
    •  Staying in this calm role. You will be inviting others to respond this way
    •  Starting easy and finishing strong, ratcheting up the toughness of your responses only as necessary
    •  Collaborating, being flexible and willing to compromise to reach an agreement, but ...
    •  Holding out for what is most important and compromising on lesser things – demand what you must, accept what you can
    •  Aiming for everyone to feel they have got something. The idea of 'win-win' as opposed to 'win-lose' or 'lose-lose'
    •  Helping people to save face, rather than humiliating them
    •  Agreeing the terms of the resolution, such as when it will start, when you will talk about it again, the consequences of any boundary being broken etc.
    •  Making a clear agreement at end of negotiation
    Supporting ourselves
    •  Contacting organisations that can help, such as Family Drug Support, mediation services, counselling, refuges for domestic violence etc
    •  Accepting the support of people you know, either to talk about the difficulties of the conflicts you have, or to have a diversion away from them
    •  Letting ourselves have a break from conflict/having a place of sanctuary to go – holidays, time out, respite etc.
    Though conflicts are frequently seen as a crisis, they may also be seen as an opportunity for positive change.
  • Unhealthy Ways Of Dealing With Conflict
    Anger is a natural human emotion and one that can be, in some circumstances, an understandable and even healthy way of reacting. However, it can also be potentially dangerous to ourselves and others.
    Therefore there are many unwritten social rules inhibiting anger to control these risks. We typically swallow these rules whole as children and then have beliefs such as "it is unreasonable to be angry", "people who are angry are out of control" or "it's bad to be angry".
    The fear and shame about anger can mask it or lead us to modify what we do with it, with potentially unhealthy consequences. When we are not aware of being angry, or are aware but don't express it, anger can then become modified.
    •  Anger we are unable to effectively express can become persisting bitterness
    •  Anger that is denied can be displaced onto other people or organisations
    •  Anger that is denied can also be displaced within ourselves, becoming guilt and potentially depression
    •  Unexpressed anger that is suppressed within us can lead to tiredness, depression and physical illness
    •  Anger occasionally leads us to regress, as if we were a rebellious child again and can lead to us living a restricted life of acting out our anger through our behaviour
    Signs that can indicate we might be unaware of our anger include regularly feeling irritable, critical, bored, dissatisfied or disturbed.
  • Ways To Positively Express And Resolve Anger
    The following steps can help you recognise an express your anger:
    •  Recognise when you are angry – shouting in a loud and angry voice, "I am not angry", is not recognising your anger
    •  Accept that it is OK and human to get angry
    •  Identify the source of the anger – who or what is causing the anger?
    •  Understand why you are angry
    •  Identify the feelings that your anger is masking
    •  Find positive and effective ways to express your anger and release tension
    •  Understand that negative or abusive forms of expressing anger are never OK – this includes emotional and physical abuse and other violent behaviours
    •  Practice forgiveness for yourself as well as the drug user
    Written and adapted by Tony Trimingham from various sources, especially the website of ADFAM, UK. Adfam is a similar organisation to FDS in the United Kingdom and they do excellent work supporting families of drug users.  
  • What Happens To Unresolved Anger?
    Unexpressed anger contributes to physical and emotional tension. The expression of anger releases that tension. Without healthy ways to express anger, unexpressed anger builds up and can result in physical symptoms such as headaches, body tension, indigestion and anxiety.
    There are those who claim they 'don't get angry'. Outwardly they may appear calm and unfazed. Again, this could be a result of witnessing negative expression of anger in their past. However, this tension still exists and builds up, adding to the emotional 'gunnysack'. A seemingly trivial event can trigger an explosive expression of anger.
    For example, an unwashed teacup is the trigger for an all out argument over who does their fair share, which leads to who contributes and to personal attacks and so on.
    There are ways to express anger that are productive and allow us to maintain honest relationships with those around us, even during difficult times.
    Expressing our anger does not mean that the cause of the anger has been addressed or resolved but, when we release some of the tension, we have more energy to address the situation.

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Supporting families and friends of people who use substances as well as bereaved families in Australia.

SUPPORT LINE (24 Hours - 7 Days)
Phone: 1300 368 186

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