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Resolving Family Conflicts

When you take the big picture view of the family and see it as an interconnected system, it becomes easier to transform conflict into connection.

Systems Centered Training, or SCT, is a tool I use all the time. SCT can actually tell you what phase of development the family is in. Systems Centered Training is about working with individuals, couples, families, business, organizations, social systems and being able to understand why it is that they are not moving forward in a way that they say they want to move forward. It sheds light on what’s happening that gets in the way of them realizing the goals they would like to actualize. It was developed by Dr. Yvonne Agazarian. I use it in couples work, with individuals, with family business members, and with other groups. I use it with families where they have absolutely kind of given up and feel maybe we can’t work all this out. We will all just go back to our silos, do our job and try and manage it. Let’s just not make it any worse.

In SCT, “the system” is in whatever particular context that you set. So, if it’s two siblings talking, that is a system and you can begin work there. They may rest in the larger system of the family, and the family may rest in the larger system of the family business. Each time you work, you assess the current boundaries of the system.

Change one part of a family dynamic, and the whole system adjusts accordingly
Systems are dynamic as any one part influences the rest. You can take one part of it, like the two siblings, and say it is part of a sub-system. It is a small group. However, they are influenced by the context in which they reside, which includes the rest of the siblings, the parents system, the extended family, the business and it all interrelations.

When you try and say the problem is all in the person you are in individual psychology. While Individual psychology can be helpful, we human beings are social animals so we reside within a system that influences us. We respond and react to that larger system. When we are in these systems, and something bothers us, and we feel like we are not heard, or we are irritated with something, or we are frustrated what usually happens is we drop into ourselves and we lose our membership power in the system. We just react to the system rather than deciding we can connect to the system.

SCT suggests these questions: What can I find in the discussion I am having that I can agree with?, or What part could I agree with? Once there is awareness the awareness, “maybe I can’t agree with everything, but something could be there”, then things start to change.

SCT came out of psychotherapy. The founders were thinking about how to teach other people since there are certain protocols that work and others that don’t work. SCT is about training people in what works. Just as you would go to a trainer to learn how to be safe in the gym and more effective in using the weights, or you would work with a coach to get ready for a marathon. There is a step function and phases in learning how to run well. So, you get a coach who paces you so you don’t injure yourself in getting ready for that marathon.

SCT is the same in that you are training people in how to form sub-groups. How can even two people function as a group? How can they form a “we” that honours the best of both of their intentions without getting stuck and polarizing about how the other person is “too different”—the business is too different to connect to; the parents are too different to connect to, or siblings are too different to connect to.

Coaching in SCT can help your family connect
Working with SCT, I help clients find some ways to connect that feel right to them. Once people feel that somebody is trying to connect with them, they start to drop some of their defenses and start to be interested in what’s going on; somebody is actually listening to them.

All groups, all families, come together for any conversation around a task with a certain degree of questioning:

  • What is required of me?
  • What is going on here?

They start in a conversation with some caution. Usually you can determine from the language what the pattern is:

  •  Is this a group that is still a bit uncertain; a little anxious?
  • Is it safe here to express my opinion?
  • Are people listening?
  • Can we handle some difference?

Or, is it a group that has now moved into a different phase—fighting and arguing?

Finding out who in the group is interested, and what they are interested in requires communication. Each group member requires a conversation and how those conversations go determines whether you can have a successful outcome.

Often everybody wants to work towards agreement, toward collaboration, so there is a push to have agreement. As the facilitator you need to be careful and do the developmental building blocks. Finding what everyone wants; finding out the steps that each individual needs to go through to get on that team and have it feel like it is more important for them to be part of the team then to just be the superstar.

You don’t have to eliminate disagreements, but learn how to disagree constructively
SCT can be extremely functional in helping to handle group differences and teaching people to argue constructively. Constructive argument is about how the argument happens. Often, arguments happen with blame and attack with people telling other people, through implication or directly, how things should be. This stirs up someone up and then there is a counter argument made.

The need is get people to start to calm down and not be as reactive; the need is for someone to be able to say, “Well tell me more about what it is you are up to with this approach”.

When group members are responded to with inquiry instead of defensiveness or argument they feel more included and then feel they are respected for their opinion. Even if it is very different, you can somehow appreciate their difference. Every time somebody does is able to appreciate difference when they are arguing; they help that member have a voice in the group.

SCT finds that there is always somebody else in the group who feels somewhat similar to what is being said, but the other person is not speaking. When using SCT you would ask the person who is upset to get centered, to notice what it is like to be feeling very strongly about this, and then have them ask, “Is there anybody else in the family who has anything like my feelings”.

The chances are that 99.9% of the time there is somebody else in the room who agrees with part of it. Then the speaker knows he or she is not alone. In Systems Centered work, in family work and in running a business the danger is that people start to feel that they are working alone. It causes isolation, reactivity and scapegoating.

The SCT system of sub-grouping makes sure that somebody always has somebody else who agrees with them enough that they can feel like they are not alone. In this way you help whoever is in that small group to know who their allies are. At that point, people could easily criticize and say, “That small group is a clique. Now we have a clique in this thing. Now it is even worse!”

But it isn`t worse because once they feel like they have been able to say what they need to say, you can ask them, “is it okay for other people in the family or in the business, to be able to talk about what is different for them”. This forms another sub-group, and then as a facilitator, you can facilitate outside the group. Someone in the family with some skills can also facilitate.

As either an outside facilitator or an in group facilitator, you facilitate by joining with other people`s opinions, feelings, ideas, reactions and that group then starts feeling like they are not working alone.

As those conversations start happening, invariably somebody in the first group starts to get interested in the second group, and somebody in the second group gets interested in something in the first group.

After they have calmed down a little bit, you start getting the group working as a whole and it becomes functioning work group.

Ian Macnaughton Recognized for Outstanding Achievement

Communication Problems -- and Solutions -- in a Nutshell