A friends son and daughter stopped speaking to each other. It lasted more than a year. It wasn't just talk. They refused to come to the same Thanksgiving meal together--a meal my friend prepares for a large group that includes her two other children, their spouses and children.
One of her sons tried to mediate a peace. Her husband tried talking to each of them. No luck. The offended daughter even approached her offending brother to spell out her complaint against him. It only made matters worse.
Though the siblings have since come to terms with each other, I thought about my friend and the bad blood that existed between two of her children when I came across a Sheila Heen column on Family Grudges. I've been reading a lot of Heen recently (more on that in another post). She's got some very commonsensical suggestions on how to work around family conflicts. After reading her recent column, I sent it off to my friend. It turns out, her kids--as well as my friend and her husband and their other children--had been taking the wrong tack.
Heen's suggestions for working through a grudge match start with a Do Not Do. Specifically, do not write a letter or email spelling out your perspective--or even apologizing for something you may have done wrong.
Sounds counter-intuitive, but here's Heen's rational: "Inevitably some aspect of what you describe will feel “off” to them (“That’s not what happened!”) or will leave out parts that they feel are most important. And their interpretation of your motives for writing the letter is colored by emotion. Your desire to reconnect is seen as a desire to absolve yourself of guilt, to manipulate, or to appear to be righteously taking the high road....Remember that email and letters aren’t dialogue. They’re monologue. And they’re the channel of communication that can escalate conflict most quickly."
So what can you do to ease the path of reconciliation? Here are some of Heen's basic approaches, which can be adapted by an interested parenting hoping to give grown children a chance to reconcile--or to make peace with a begrudging child:
Strategy 1: Don’t talk, just do. Often family members cut off contact not because they like conflict, but because they hate conflict. Avoiding the stress seems most easily done by avoiding the people who produce the stress....Sometimes, depending on the personalities involved, the best approach is to avoid the “big conversation” altogether, and just to start acting “normal” again.
Strategy 2: Propose a conversation just about the future. Sometimes it’s not worth sorting through the details of who did what and reacted to what. It may simply be that you want to propose talking about how to move on.
Strategy 3: Initiate a conversation to understand the rift. Let them know that you’d like to talk. Not so that you can talk them out of their feelings or their behavior, but so that you can better understand what’s happened between you. ...In that conversation, first listen to them. Why? Because people simply do not take in what you have to say, cannot question or shift their perceptions, until they feel understood. To get meaningful communication moving, someone has to be the first to listen and that someone is going to have to be you.