Roger and his father Dan work together in a family business. While the business has flourished, their relationship has faltered. Connections between parents and their adult children can become difficult in the best of circumstances. The tensions typically present in business can add significantly to the personal stress that arises around family conflicts.
Over the last decade Roger and Dan have developed a pattern of escalating negative exchanges. Now they fire off at each other so quickly they don’t have enough time to think about the damage they’re doing.
For example, Roger and Dan often have differences regarding the proper prices for their products due to their respective roles in sales and manufacturing. Roger wants to keep the price point low to be competitive while Dan wants to maintain high quality, which comes with a higher price tag.
The conversations between the two men quickly devolve into personal attacks. When Dan becomes frustrated with his son, he unleashes his anger by telling Roger he lacks integrity, and suggests that’s why his children misbehave. Roger reacts with a critical attack regarding his father’s “abusive” personality. He tells his father that he refuses to be treated disrespectfully in front of his own kids – so Dan is no longer welcome to be around his grandchildren.
These two are allowing flaws in their thinking to ruin their relationship. They’re both committing what psychologists refer to as “fundamental attribution errors.” When things go wrong, people tend to attribute the problem to what they perceive as the other individuals character flaws. Most often that’s an error in judgment that leads the conversation into criticism and contentious debate about who’s at fault.
Dan blames his son for the dysfunction that prevails, attributing their issues to what he perceives as Roger’s poor values rather than seeing the situational factors that create conflicts. Predictably, Roger vigorously defends himself and counterattacks with criticisms of his father.
They’re playing the blame game rather than seeking an understanding of each other’s point of view. Because neither knows what the other needs to make the situation work satisfactorily, they render themselves incapable of seeing possibilities for creating a positive outcome.
In addition, criticism also destroys confidence – in everyone who’s involved. It’s not only the person who’s being judged that loses confidence, but also the individual doing the judging. The critic alienates someone who possess important information about how to resolve the situation, as people under attack cut off communication. Just when they need input the most, critics blind themselves from seeing what’s necessary to achieve a win-win solution.
Being on the receiving end of criticism often causes people to ruminate. Of course, dwelling on the problem only deepens dissatisfaction, and focuses the mind on figuring out how to get back at the attacker.
What’s really sad is that Roger and Dan actually love each other. That’s why they’re so hurt by the other’s negative comments. And although they want the situation to improve, they’re both focusing on changes the other should make rather than looking at how to modify their own behavior.
Obviously, step one is to stop criticizing. Every time they feel the urge to say something negative, they need to label it as antagonistic in their self-talk rather than uttering the words aloud: “I’m slipping into the old attack mode again. I need to slow down by taking several deep breathes.”
Then they need to refocus their thinking on taking positive action. Knowing your best character strengths is incredibly helpful at this juncture. Roger, for instance, has learning as one of his top traits. When he shifts his mind into learning mode he can ask: “How can we learn to work out mutually acceptable outcomes? What do I need to learn about what my Father wants for his half of a win-win?”
Roger will only excel if he can learn to amplify his strengths, and not try to correct his father’s mistakes. Numerous studies have shown that the most potent enabler of success is to consistently play to your strengths. The most satisfied people know how they can use their strengths to create the effortless flow of energy that propels them to positive outcomes. By maintaining a high awareness of their positive qualities they’re less vulnerable to being derailed by people who disagree or disrespect them.
By focusing on their greatest strengths, they’re able to free their mind of debilitating attack-defend thinking. Instead they can use their best judgment to create innovative solutions for producing excellent results for themselves and others.