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Try these tips to ease family tension.
Try these tips to ease family tension. / Romilly Lockyer/Getty Images

Dr. Stephen R. Covey, renowned author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, teaches how to break through conflicts of all kinds in his new book The 3rd Alternative.


Family holiday togetherness. The thought may fill you with warmth — and quite another emotion: dread.

We all have dealt with family conflict. But over the holidays, it can be especially dicey to navigate.

Whether an old or fresh, raw quarrel, you want to get past it. But how? And what about the other person? Isn’t it his or her place to apologize to you?

Here are steps you can take:

1. Listen Without Losing It.

Take the chance over the holidays to connect with your relative. Find time for a one-on-one. This is not, “We need to talk;” it’s, “I need to listen.”

Shut down that voice in your head that argues with everything the other person is saying. Try to see things through their eyes.

No question, this is hard to do. You might hear things that make your blood boil.

But if you simply listen quietly, you’ll accomplish two things. You’ll understand better where the other person is coming from (after all, you don’t have a monopoly on the truth, either). Second, the other person airs it all out and feels understood, maybe for the first time.

2. Let Go.

Calmly say back to the other person what you understand about their point of view. Make sure they’re satisfied that you really do understand.

Then ask, “Now, would you be willing to understand my point of view?” If you have honestly understood theirs without lashing out, they will usually agree to hear yours, too.

When you’re both satisfied that you understand each other’s feelings and viewpoints, you naturally let go of your resentment.

3. Look for 3rd Alternatives.

You’re no longer stuck with “my way” or “your way.” You can go on to look for a 3rd Alternative, a better way than either of you has thought of before.

Here’s an example. One woman was mad at her sister, who in her opinion “stole” Grandma’s precious china collection. The sister insisted that Grandma had given it to her. After following the first two steps, they agreed on a 3rd Alternative—to have an expert value the collection, put it in a family trust for future generations, and share the use of it. Both sisters were happy, along with all the other family members.

Unless you’re dealing with abusive or illegal behavior, this kind of family conflict can turn into a family miracle if even one person is willing to listen, let go, and look for 3rd Alternatives.

We’d love to hear your stories as you try out this approach to your family conflict. How does it work for you? Register for the Stephen Covey Community, join The 3rd Alternative Book Group, go to the Forum and post your story, and we’ll share a few of them in upcoming columns.

Contributing editor Dr. Stephen R. Covey is author of the best-selling The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. His latest book, The 3rd Alternative, is new in stores.

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