You Might Be the Ideal Person to Become Your Family’s In-House Counselor
Take on the role of a practical therapist and end your family’s conflicts before they become a major problem
Got a few people in your family that need fixing?
Disagreements, misunderstandings, and hurt feelings are part of everyone’s family dynamic. Sometimes it originates from disappointing behavior or broken promises. Other times it results from simple frustration, especially when our personal well of patience runs dry over an immature expression of undeserved entitlement.
Regardless of the cause, someone has to pitch in a clean up the mess.
Depending on how much involvement you had in creating the situation, you could be the ideal person to restore peace and harmony.
Traditionally, the family peacekeeper is an authoritarian — setting the rules and ending disagreements by incontestable mandate. Their authority is usually based on some arbitrary hierarchy — my house, my rules; you’re wrong, I’m right — delivered with absolute dictatorial control.
That makes a fair, unbiased, and mutually acceptable outcome of any family dispute more a roll of the dice than a considered and carefully deliberated decision.
Parents may make an honest and unbiased assessment of the situation . . . or they may not. Tired of the bickering, shouting, and the general stress of arguing family members, they may respond with, “Shut up. I’m tired of hearing it, and I don’t want to hear another word out of either of you.”
But as the Designated Family Therapist (DFT), you can take a different approach.
Instead of assuming your role as someone who passes judgement, sets blame, or calls out toxic behavior, you’ll reframe arguments and disagreements as requests for help.
Those doing the arguing are looking for someone to step in and make it better. They need someone — preferably someone they trust — to restore the relationship dynamic to something positive.
Before we get to the specifics, a small warning:
Your personal lack of involvement in the dispute is critical. If the other person believes their wounding had anything to do with you, this won’t work. Your efforts will be seen as defensive rhetoric, a rationalization for your behavior.
A typical newbie DFT’s most critical mistake.
Most beginner family arbitrators believe it’s their responsibility to choose sides and decide who was right and who was wrong.
In other words, they try to resolve the problem by passing judgement, then sermonizing like a preacher full of fire and brimstone to defend their position.
Taking the time to examine the situation, the details, and the expectations — right or wrong — of everyone involved is an absolute. Even if it’s obvious who’s at fault, the guilty party must be given the opportunity to explain their attitude and actions — to hear it from their own mouth, perhaps motivating them to accept responsibility for their actions.
To be effective, you’ll need a framework — a process to move the distraught family members beyond the problem or situation, and arrive at a solution that everyone can live with.
Don’t discount the process. It’s a method of maintaining objectivity and emotional neutrality — absolute necessities if you want others to respect your suggestions and decisions.
First, identify the negative actions.
This means going beyond the yelling, name-calling, and stubborn attitudes. You’re looking for the root cause, the red flag, or the trigger point.
For example, “Jenny, when your brother, Billy, called you stupid, why did that upset you? You know you’re not stupid. We all know you’re very smart. So Billy’s comment wasn’t true, was it?”
Jenny may come back at this point and disclose how important her big brother’s opinion is — in fact, more important than what Jennie thinks of herself. She secretly idolizes her brother. And he just denigrated her.
The purpose of this exchange is for Billy to learn that his responsibility goes far beyond restricting his immature tendencies to dominate others with his tongue. He needs to realize how much his sister looks up to him — for everything. And by letting her down, he also reduces his importance in her eyes.
Is that what Billy wants?
Get the idea? Hunt for the deeper reason behind the behavior, especially if it’s repeated. In many instances, someone is asking for attention or acknowledgement within the family structure, and rather than express their true feelings, they’re acting out, hoping someone will notice and interpret what’s really going on.
Silence is NOT golden
If you encounter a situation where one or more family members simply refuse to talk about the situation, ask a general question that doesn’t directly address the negative experience. For example,
“What’s going on?” is a much better question than, “Why did you do that?”
A continued refusal to talk usually means one of two things . . .
The distraught party believes more talk isn’t going to change anything. They’ve lost faith in family leadership. They don’t believe you or anyone else is listening to their side of the situation and their input is automatically dismissed as unimportant.
The second reason for silence is based on the intimacy of the subject or the embarrassment of disclosing it.
If you encounter a wall of resistance, don’t press it. Simply offer to be available if the reluctant party changes their mind or wants to talk later — after they’ve had a chance to calm down.
Which brings us to one of the most important aspects of being a good DFT . . .
In short, you have to keep your mouth shut. You can’t expect others to confide in you if they know you’re going to repeat their conversation at the dinner table.
If you believe there is benefit from sharing the conversation, ask for permission. Regardless of the answer, accept it. Treat your promise of confidentially as an unbreakable trust.
Warning: Refusing to share what you know may cause others to see you as part of the problem. Other members of the family — typically the more authoritarian figures — may insist you reveal a confidential conversation.
Parents especially can have a problem with this, insisting that, as the head of the household, they have a RIGHT to know what’s going on.
Explain that you shared a trust with this person, and asking you to break it would be counterproductive to your efforts to help those who need it most.
Tell them a family member has willingly shared their thoughts with you — in confidence.
If you dishonor that confidentially, the loyalty is destroyed, and you’ll no longer be trusted. Is that what they want — to remove the one and only person in the family who is actively communicating with a suffering family member?
Here’s a quick example:
Years ago, I established a solid rapport with my fifteen-year-old niece — I’ll call her Joyce. We talked about everything — boys, sex, drinking — the typical topics that a burgeoning adolescent encounters during those awkward teenage years.
Her mother didn’t like it. She wanted to know what her daughter was talking about. Was Joyce sexually active? Was she drinking? Hanging out with the wrong people?
I told her that, in the event I learned that Joyce was engaging in harmful or dangerous activities — and I was unable to prevent it — I would be the first one on the phone to her. But otherwise, my conversations with Joyce were conducted in confidence, and out of respect for my relationship with my niece, they had to stay that way.
Fifteen years later, I wouldn’t change a thing. Joyce is an independent, successful, young woman who is enjoying an exciting, fulfilling life.
It’s very unlikely that I had anything to do with it. But once in a while, I wonder if my input concerning the discipline required for effective birth control, and my standing offer to pick her up from any location at any time because the driver of the car was drinking, made a difference.
A healthy family dynamic is its own reward
The point is, an effective DFT is not looking for recognition or accolades, but rather, wants to help the members of their family in the same way they would offer to help other, non-family members.
A family tie doesn’t preclude an individual need for shared personal reflection with a trusted friend.
Finally, don’t expect a breakthrough of hugs and smiles, or for someone to experience a personal epiphany immediately following your intervention. During the heat of the argument, there’s too much adrenaline flowing, too much emphasis on defending personal ego and identity for the brain to process immediate and lasting change.
Your job is to plant the seed and allow family members to arrive at their own, and hopefully, improved perspective at their own speed.
If the negative behavior is habitual, it can take even longer to reframe it into something more productive and less damaging.
Important: If drugs or alcohol is involved, it’s a completely different picture and beyond the scope of this article.
Here’s the Takeaway . . .
You’re all on the same side.
An argument, disagreement, or difference of opinion usually generates strongly-held feelings. Your job is to separate the personalities from the situation or problem.
Make it clear that you’re trying to determine the reason for the behavior, not to point the finger of blame or identify a pattern of wrongdoing.
Telling someone, “You’re rotten to the core” is less helpful than, “Let’s determine what was said or done that provoked you into lashing out.”
Make it clear that you care equally about both parties and want the best for both.
Being a family arbitrator often puts you in the middle, with both sides wanting you to pick their version of the story as true. They typically want you to pass judgement, and validate their position.
But drawing a conclusion about who was right and who was wrong is best made by the ones involved in the confrontation. A good therapist is seldom thought of as the ultimate source for passing judgment, but rather, points their “clients” toward the truth.
Thanks for reading,
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Roger A. Reid, Ph.D. is a certified NLP trainer with degrees in engineering and business. Roger is the author of Better Mondays and Speak Up, and host of Success Point 360 Podcast, offering tips and strategies for achieving higher levels of career success and personal fulfillment in the real world.
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