Retirement Weekly

You’re older and wiser. Should you play mediator and resolve conflicts among family and friends?

5 questions to ask yourself before you intervene

Lucasfilms / courtesy Everett Collection

If you grow wiser as you grow older, then it stands to reason that you’re better suited to resolve conflicts with friends and family as you age.

You can harness your experience and knowledge to find common ground and bridge divides.

But just because you’re older doesn’t mean you’re an all-knowing Yoda. You can just as easily come across as a finger-pointing scold or a loudmouth dictator in your efforts to bring people together.

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Seniors who are adept at restoring the peace possess the communication skills and emotional intelligence to build trust and calm aggrieved parties. Rather than force others to kiss and make up, they pose questions and offer suggestions that reduce rancor.

“Older people have experienced the impacts of destructive conflicts and how relationships can be damaged,” said Dana Caspersen, author of “Changing The Conversation.” “Because they’ve had that experience, they can say [to combatants] that unless a new way is found, unless they try something else, the conflict will keep going.”

But just because you’ve endured years of grappling with interpersonal conflict doesn’t grant you the license to lecture. Ideally, you resolve disputes among family and friends by allowing them to come to terms with their actions and behavior.

“People don’t want to be told what to do,” said Caspersen, a Vermont-based conflict engagement specialist. “But talking about your experience can be powerful.”

Instead of making “should” statements (“You should think how much pain you’re causing”), use phrases such as, “From my experience, I’ve found…” or “Here’s what worked for me…” After sharing succinct, instructive anecdotes, give others a chance to reflect on your experience and apply it to their situation.

If you’re trying to mediate a dispute among your children and grandchildren, you also have the benefit of making your comments sound more plaintive and profound. If you speak from the heart, it can be harder for younger generations to ignore you or react with cynicism.

“Make a verbal commitment to someone,” said Melody Stanford Martin, author of “Brave Talk.” “Say, ‘I want to work through this conflict with you.’ It shows a positive intent. It shows the person that they matter to you.”

Once you decide to play peacemaker, set aside time for preliminary soul-searching. Before you intervene, ask yourself five questions:

Why am I doing this? 

Identify what’s motivating you to help others overcome a conflict. Confirm that you’re driven by genuine goals, such as enabling two people you love to treat each other with more compassion.

“Be clear about your own intentions,” Caspersen said. “If you’re trying to control others’ decisions and arguing over what other people should do,” that’s a red flag.

Am I willing to learn? 

If you think you know all the answers—and you’re intervening in a conflict to redirect wayward parties to see the truth (as you see it)—you may stir up even more trouble.

“Focus on what matters to others and what they care about,” Caspersen said. “Be truly curious to learn.”

Can I see all sides of the issue? 

Withholding judgment is tough as you try to bring warring parties together. The rush to assign blame can be hard to resist. You may have longstanding biases or perceptions that prevent you from mediating a conflict with fair-minded openness to clashing perspectives.

“Older folks may find it hard to hold the paradox of multiple realities,” Stanford Martin said. “You want to explore many different facets to get the bigger picture, to adopt a 3D way of seeing the world. That’s better than thinking there’s one right way to see the problem.”

How am I perceived? 

It’s far easier to tamp down disputes if you’re perceived as an honest broker. Yet in many cases, family and friends who know you well might harbor preconceived notions about you—and that can limit your effectiveness.

For example, you may have a tendency to boss people around or express harsh opinions. That puts you at a disadvantage from the get-go if you’re trying to mediate a dispute.

“Resist the desire to exert control, especially if you’re used to getting your way in an intimate relationship,” Stanford Martin said. “It leads to power imbalances. Once you establish a pattern of control, it’s hard to break that pattern.”

How do I handle conflict? 

Many people react to conflict one of three ways: fight, flight or freeze. None of those responses are particularly helpful if you’re trying to help others work through a dispute.

“It’s important to have that awareness of your natural inclination to conflict,” said Amy Gallo, author of “The HBR Guide To Dealing With Conflict.” “If you shut down, you may not be the best person for the role” of mediator.