Ep 193: Healthy Ways to Handle Conflicts

Episode Summary

Gabe Carp, author of Don’t Get Mad at Penguins, joins us to talk about how we can handle conflict with our teens in healthy ways, stay calm during heated arguments and help teens develop critical communication skills.

Show NotesInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

We all have conflicts with our kids. Whether it’s over something big like their college major  or something as small as what they’ll eat for breakfast, disagreement is natural. As teens grow into independent thinkers, there’s bound to be some tension in your house. But when your  discussions keep turning into a screaming match and doors start slamming left and right… you might find yourself left wondering, is there a better way??

It turns out, disputes with teens don’t have to feel like emotional warfare! With better tools, we can take the friction between us and our teens and turn it into something productive. Although it’s not easy to keep your cool when teens push your buttons, there are some things we can do to avoid escalating the conversation into a toxic argument! If we can bring the right energy to these quarrels, we can create a more peaceful home and strengthen our bonds with teens along the way.

To help us solve our squabbles in a healthy way, we’re talking to Gabe Karp, author of Don’t Get Mad at Penguins: And Other Ways to Detox the Conflict in Your Life and Business. Gabe’s trial lawyer who later joined a small tech start up and helped turn it into one of the biggest companies in the world! As  a venture capitalist, he’s negotiated multi-million dollar deals. A powerful businessman and a parent, Gabe knows just how much our conflicts can drag us down if we don’t find healthy ways to handle them.

In the episode, we’re discussing why clashes with teens are a natural part of life, and how you can tackle them in a productive, nontoxic way! Plus, Gabe explains how you can use a “shopping list” voice to keep a conflict from escalating, and why sharing  your own experiences with teens can help them feel understood.

Keeping Disagreements Docile

Although we might see conflict as something to be avoided, it’s pretty much inevitable that we’ll squabble with teens, says Gabe.  It’s not only a natural part of life, it’s a sign that your teen is developing strong critical thinking skills and confidence! Gabe explains that if we can lean into conflict instead of constantly avoiding it, we can be happier and more successful people. It’s important, however, to distinguish between toxic conflict and nontoxic conflict, he says. While nontoxic conflict pushes us to be more honest and find solutions, toxic conflict simply exists to create more problems.

So how can we take the toxins out of our disagreements? Gabe explains that ego and emotional thinking are typically at the center of this problem, especially for conflicts between parents and kids. When kids say they won’t be home by curfew, we start to get anxious about their safety and frustrated that they won’t listen, leading us to get angry or lash out. We feel like they’re challenging our authority, which can bruise our ego! But if we can let go of this kind of thinking, we’ll be able to solve the conflict with calamity instead of yelling or fighting, says Gabe.

It can also be effective to try and remove judgment, Gabe explains. We’re often quick to judge our teen’s friends, as a way of sorting out who’s a good influence and who’s bad news. But if we express these judgments to teens and declare they stop seeing these “bad” friends, they’ll only continue doing it behind our backs. It might even drive them further towards a bad crowd! Gabe suggests keeping these judgments to ourselves, and instead prompt teens to make their own judgments.

In the episode, Gabe shares a particularly interesting method for approaching disagreement with teens, which he calls the “shopping list” voice.

Staying Calm During Conflict

When our kids talk back or break our rules, our first instinct is to often remind them who’s in charge by raising our voice and going on a verbal tirade. However, this not only drives a wedge between the two of you, but also makes it literally impossible for them to process what you’re saying, Gabe explains. When humans feel like we’re under attack, many of our neurological pathways shut down and we can’t take in new information properly. This is typically what goes on in kids’ heads when you’re yelling at them to do better!

Instead Gabe recommends communicating your frustration in what he refers to as a “shopping list” voice. This means talking to your kid in a neutral,  matter-of-fact tone, as though you’re reading them a list of the  grocery store items you might need. Keeping your tone dispassionate while still expressing your frustration with the situation helps you communicate your message very clearly to a teen, making sure they don’t miss the message at hand. It can be hard, however,  to stay this calm and collected when you’re about to boil over. Gabe shares some tips for keeping cool in the episode.

Oftentimes, this shopping list talk can start to sound like a lecture. Although you don’t want to react emotionally in the situation, it can be helpful to speak with empathy, says Gabe. Teenagers are feeling a lot of things, and showing that you understand where they’re at emotionally will help bring them around to your side of the issue. Some teens truly feel  that their  life will be ruined if they don’t go to a particular party. Even though we know that’s not true, it can be valuable to validate those feelings and even share a time when you felt the same way!

In fact, sharing your own experiences and feelings can be an essential part of conflict resolution. Gabe and I talked about this in length in our interview.

Why Vulnerability Matters

Most of the time, we really do know how teens feel…because we were teens once too! We know the crushing feeling of being rejected by our crush, the social pressures of seeming cool in the high school hallways, and the constant confusion about who we are or want to be. If we can share stories and feelings from our own youth, teens might understand that we’re not trying to ruin their lives, but instead lead them down the right road. It doesn’t have to be a story from your teen years either, says Gabe. Maybe you’ve got a situation at work that feels just as challenging as finding a date to the prom!

Once you’ve presented an idea to your teen and shared all the reasons why you think you’re right, Gabe suggests giving them a chance at a rebuttal. Even though you might not want to hear it, your teen might just make a good point that shifts your perspective on the entire situation. Teaching kids to justify their beliefs, speak about their emotions  and provide explanations for their behavior is a great way to instill positive communication skills that they can bring into adulthood.

However, Gabe recommends straying away from telling teens what it is they’re feeling. Although you may have felt angry and sad about your SAT score as a teen doesn’t mean your own teen is feeling that way! If you try to assign them feelings, they’re bound to get defensive. Gabe suggests we tell them how we felt in our own version of the situation, and then wait for them to tell us how it is for them. That way, we can connect, communicate and work through conflict in a healthy way.

In the Episode…

Managing disagreement is no easy task, but with Gabe’s tips, we can work towards peaceful, productive conversations. On top of the topics discussed above, we also talk about:

  • How we can teach teens to set boundaries
  • Why control tactics tend to backfire
  • How we actually  empower teens when we enforce rules
  • What goes on in a teen’s head during conflict with parents

If you enjoyed this week’s episode, you can find more from Gabe on his website,  gabekarp.com! Don’t forget to share and subscribe and we’ll see you next week.


Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: Talk to me about this book, Don’t Get Mad at Penguins. This book is about conflict and how to detox conflict. Why are you interested in that topic? What caused you to write a book about this?

Gabe: One of the big misconceptions out there is that conflict is a bad thing that should be avoided at all costs. I see that in companies, I see that with individuals navigating their careers, and I see that with family members trying to navigate the holiday dinner table.

Gabe: What I’ve found is that’s a real big misconception and that conflict is not something that should be avoided. When I think about the times when I’ve had success, in the relationships that I’m happiest, it’s when we lean into conflict and we don’t avoid it, but it’s important to realize that there’s healthy conflict and there’s toxic conflict.

Gabe: Engaging in toxic conflict, well, it’s toxic. It’s not healthy. It’s not fun and that is bad. You should avoid toxic conflict. The book really delves into the natural toxins that build up in human interaction. What they are, how to identify them and then how to detox them from your conflict so you can engage in healthy conflict that really drives and propels growth and gets people into a more transparent and honest and genuine dialogue.

Andy: Yeah, because if no one is ever giving honest feedback, or if everyone is just agreeing with each other, saying what we want to hear, then that’s not necessarily going to be the best for us all to grow and really have depth in our relationships and our communication.

Gabe: Absolutely. If all you ever tell me is what I want to hear that’s going to make me feel good in the moment, you’re probably not going to really tell me anything that’s going to cause me to challenge myself or venture outside my comfort zone. I’ll just stay in that nice little cozy cocoon of stagnation.

Andy: I think this really is relevant for parenting because as a parent, it’s really easy to get into the mindset, “Oh, there’s so much back talk and arguing and conflict in my household. I wish I could just get rid of that and we could just live in peace and harmony.” But there is a certain extent to which it is good that your kids feel like they can challenge you on things. We don’t necessarily want to get rid of that. We just want to detoxify it.

Andy: I like how you were talking about healthy versus unhealthy conflict. What does that look like? What’s the difference between healthy versus unhealthy conflict?

Gabe: Sure. Some of the big toxins that we’re talking about are anger, fear, ego and judgment. Those things all occur naturally, and within an optimal range, are actually really healthy and do a lot of good. Even anger.

Andy: Right.

Gabe: When I’m angry, my anger basically motivates me to fix stuff that’s broken. And then the key is once it’s fixed to let go of the anger to not let it stick around and be toxic. But when thinking about parents and teens, parents are often the source of the toxins because I would say this. I’m a parent, I’ve got three teenage girls, there’s no shortage of opportunities for toxic conflict. But as a parent, I have fear about my kids. They’re going out into the world and they’re interacting with people that I don’t know and I’m not there to protect them and I just have this vague sense, but, “Oh my gosh, they’re in danger!” And that scares me on some level. It makes me mad that I’m scared.

Gabe: The reason I’m scared is that I don’t have control over every waking moment of their lives and I’m frustrated that I can’t control that. I’m scared because they’re out in the real world and in the real world, good and bad things happen. So a lot of parents manage that fear by clamping down on their kids. Just, all right, “You want to go do what with whom? All right, you’re on.

Andy: No!

Gabe: Yeah.

Andy: Yeah, right. End of discussion.

Gabe: Yeah, when you do that, the kids, they’re just going to figure out how to go do that stuff without you knowing about it because who wants to deal with some parent yelling at them? We’ve taken, and I’ve taken the approach, that we want to prepare them for the world and we do want to set boundaries, but the focus of the boundary is not, “This is the boundary of what I will permit you to do.” It’s more, “This is the boundary of what is good for you and what is not good for you.” If you cross that boundary, you are the one who’s going to suffer more consequences and the consequence you suffer are not going to be from my anger or my discipline. There might be discipline from me, but that’s probably going to be the least of your worry.

Andy: But then a lot of times it does get into ego because it can reflect bad on us as parents of our children are making bad choices or are getting into trouble, or are not as successful as we think they should be. And we take that personal a little bit, that means we’re doing a bad job, or we’re not as good a parent as we should be.

Andy: Then all our friends’ kid just got to accept it into this prestigious summer program, and what is my kid doing? There’s so many, I think, opportunities to make it about us and make it about our own ego in parenting. So I think it’s interesting that you specifically called that out in your book as one of the four toxins.

Gabe: Yeah. Ego is a big one. So many, I’ll just say, of us try to live vicariously through our teens. That’s kind of unfair to them. Now that doesn’t mean we don’t do it and that doesn’t mean that doesn’t mean that even I don’t do it, but that does put a certain kind of pressure on a teen that just isn’t healthy. It’s not productive.

Gabe: Now I would say this. I’ve made it clear to my kids that if kids come over here and, let’s say they’re not like you because you’re a wonderful kid. Let’s say they’re one of the bad kids, which would never be you, child, but if you’ve got someone here who wants to drink our alcohol or something like that, you can’t let them do it and that’s a rule. So that’s certainly a rule that I’m imposing. But let me tell you what happens when that rule gets violated. I’m going to make it really uncomfortable for you to the point where you’re never going to want to deal with that level of discomfort because I’m going to get involved in your social life.

Gabe: I’d rather my ego… I haven’t had that conversation with my child this way, but I’d have no problem having it this way. I’d say, “Look, one of the things you’re going to have to deal with as being my child is I have ego and you’re going to have to learn how to manage my ego. I wish I could say I don’t have ego, but hey, that’s what we’re stuck with. If you were to view it as a disability I have, well, that’s the reality. So let me give you some ideas as how best to manage my ego.” And then you can kind of build on a conversation there.

Gabe: That style and that’s maybe how I talk and other people don’t necessarily talk that way, but the substance of the message, I think, can be plugged into lots of different communication styles.

Andy: So you talked about fear, anger, ego. And judgment has come up a lot of times on this podcast, how toxic it can be when we judge our teens. And even sometimes they’ll tell us something about like a friend, and, “My friend is doing something.” If we react in a really judgemental way, then that just shuts down communication and makes them feel like they can’t open up to us more or tell us more because maybe it’s not really about the friend.

Andy: Maybe actually it’s about them, or they wanted to talk about the friend first to see how you respond to that. And then there’s more there that they want to talk about. I think so often being judgemental can really shut down a dialogue with the teenager.

Gabe: Yeah, absolutely. If your child feels that you negatively judge one of their friends, they’re just not going to want to hear that judgment if they bring up, “Oh yeah, I was hanging out with so-and-so today.” Instead they’re just not going to mention it.

Andy: They’re going to just, “I was hanging out.” They mention the other friends that were there that they know you like, and then…

Gabe: Yeah. And the result is your child is now hanging out with someone that you judge negatively and you have no idea that it’s happening. I think it’s helpful for a parent to keep that in mind because that will help keep your judgment in check. You’re going to have the judgment. Your child’s going to tell you something, “Oh yeah, so-and-so was,” I don’t know, “throwing rocks at windows.” And then you kind of make that mental note, “Okay. Billy down the street throws rocks.” But as that thought bubbles up in your mind and starts to form words that are about to come out of your mouth, they would be something along the lines of, “Boy, that Billy, I always knew he was a bad kid.” Instead, that should be the check because if you do say that, then you’re probably never going to hear about your kid being around Billy again.

Gabe: But you can still have the judgment and still use it and just channel it. “Oh, so what do you think about Billy throwing rocks at windows? You think that’s a good thing?” You can create an opportunity. You can create a space for a substantive conversation with your kid about someone doing something bad out there. Just feeling out how do they feel about it.

Andy: Going back to the difference between healthy and unhealthy conflict, or when we’re able to engage in that same conversation but without these toxins entering in, it can be much more productive. And how can we sort of keep the judgment in check and keep the ego in check?

Gabe: Yeah. I would say like talking about judgment, let’s forget about other friends. Maybe it’s judgment of your kids. So you walk in your kid’s room and it’s just a mess. If you say, “This room is a pig stye.” Well, the word “pig stye” has judgment attached to it.

Andy: Little judgmental, yeah.

Gabe: Yeah. The only time the term “pig stye” does not have judgment attached to it is when you are on a pig farm referring to an area of the farm. There, there’s no judgment.

Andy: No, this is a literal pig stye.

Gabe: Yeah. “Oh, there’s the pig stye over there.” “Oh, is that what that is?” “Yeah.” “Okay.” But when you see the proverbial pigs stye in the kid’s room, what’s the goal? Well, the goal is to get him to clean up the room. You can be a parent, you can lay down a law and say, “This room better be cleaned in 15 minutes or else…” And then fill in the blank with whatever the else is. And the room will get clean, probably, but there’s some negativity injected into that dynamic.

Andy: Yeah. And it sounds like some anger.

Gabe: Yes. So at that point you can take the pause and say, “All right, my goal is to get this child to clean this frigging room that’s been messy for so long and I’m really mad about it.” But instead of using the word “pig sty,” be very accurate in your description. “There’s a three-day-old banana peel on that desk and there, and I think there might be some fuzzy. Is that mold that’s growing on that? I’m not sure. I don’t know if this is a science project you’re working on. Well, hey, let’s maybe cordon it off so it doesn’t affect anything else.”

Gabe: In other words, you can turn it into sort of making observations that are literal observations. And then just saying, “Look, when I was a kid, I didn’t want to clean my room either, but you’ve got to clean your room. You can’t live like this. Please clean it up. This is the third time I’ve asked you. If there’s a fourth time, my frustration will soon become your frustration. So let’s not go down that road. You have the power. You have the power to derail the frustration train.” Empower the child.

Andy: Yeah, and really leaving the choice up to them but making it clear that there are consequences.

Gabe: Yes. That’s a tool, by the way, that I’ve used many times with my kids. Years ago I remember we were going out of town for a night and it was the first time we weren’t going to get a babysitter, so that was a big moment. And talking to one of my daughters, “So, what are the plans?” “Oh, I’m going to do this. I’m going to do that. I’m going to have some people over.” I said, “Well, hold on a second.”

Andy: Wait, wait, wait, wait.

Gabe: Yeah. I backed up. I said, “Listen, if I’m you, I’m thinking this is the first time my parents went out of town. It’s an opportunity to demonstrate that I’m trustworthy so that in the future, I can have more freedom when they’re out of town and I can take their concerns off the table moving forward. If I were you, I’d be thinking long term here. But let’s talk about short term. You can’t have a party when we’re out of town. And I’m just going to say a party is more than four people.”

Gabe: What I like doing is telling her, “You have a lot of influence here. You have power, you have control, and there are ways you can use it that are going to really benefit you moving forward. There are also ways that if you use it well, if you misuse it, it’s going to hurt you moving forward. We may not leave you alone ever again. Or if we do, we may make you check in with us more frequently than you’re going to want. It’s going to cramp your style, but if you can convince us that everything’s fine that’s going to make it really easy. And if you want to risk lying to us to create the appearance, then it’s easy. You could do that too, but if I catch you, then we’ve got to deal with that.”

Andy: It’d be even worse then.

Gabe: Yeah, right. Then it’s going to make your job a lot harder.

Andy: You recommend a tactic known as the “shopping list voice.”

Gabe: I do.

Andy: Is that something that would ever be useful with teenagers that you have ever used as a father?

Gabe: Absolutely. I guess maybe we’ll run through a scenario. I’m so used to talking to the business world, but-

Andy: Business examples.

Gabe: Yeah. I mean, just the reality is the stuff that happens in the boardroom at the board level, it’s the exact same dynamics that I was dealing with in high school, even middle school. So there’s no difference.

Gabe: Let’s say that I get a call from the principal of the school and the principal says, “Your child got into a food fight in the cafeteria. In addition to your child was going to be suspended, some grape juice was spilled over this very nice,” I don’t know, “tapestry that we had and someone’s going to have to pay to replace that. And that someone’s going to be you.” Let’s assume that happens. So I get that call and now I’m mad. I’m really pissed off, as I should be, which is a natural human emotion.

Andy: Totally.

Gabe: So I slam the phone down and I march over to my child and I just start laying and like, “Hey, I just got on the phone with the principal. They said you got into a food flight. Are you kidding me? And then you damage this thing. Well, guess who’s going to pay for that? You are!” And I just go on this complete tirade. Well, two seconds into that tirade, if I really am yelling and what I just did an example is, let’s say that’s at a three, imagine I dial that up to a nine. There are neurological pathways in the brain that get shut down when someone is attacked. It does get to the point where the person that is being yelled at literally cannot process the substance of what is being said because the neural pathways to the part of the brain that processes those things have been shut down, so not even getting there. So it’s not communication. That’s just me beating up on my child. That’s not good parenting. Now, by the way, that may be a healthy cathartic thing for me.

Andy: Yeah. It feels great. You just get your anger out.

Gabe: I’m just venting. And then after that, “Well, okay, this is great.” And then I can say, “All right, now [inaudible 00:16:35], now it’s good.” So think about a shopping list voice. You say, “Hey, Gabe, I’m going to the store. You want me to pick you something up?” I say, “Sure. I want to make a cake. So can you pick up some eggs, milk, flour, sugar, frosting and sprinkles.” It’s a shopping list voice. It’s dispassionate. It’s very matter-of-fact, you get it.

Gabe: So applying that to this situation to say, “I just got off the phone with the principal and they said you were in a food fight. They said that some grape juice was spilled on this thing, it needs to be replaced, in addition to the fact that you’re being suspended. And as a result of that, your mother and I now have to go to the school, sit down with the principal, either defend your actions or agree with them that your actions are what they are. And we’re going to be having a conversation with them where there’s not going to really be any question as to whether or not you did something bad. The only questions are going to be about why did you do something bad? What is the likelihood you’re going to do something bad in the future? What the impact is? It’s going to be a whole conversation that you’re not part of that’s all about you and it’s very negative. We’re going to have to go do that now and we have to pay for this. It’s not fair that we have to pay for it. You need to pay for it so it’s going to come out of allowance, whatever it is.”

Gabe: In other words, they’re not going to like what I’m saying to them. Or if you’re the parent, they’re not going to like what you’re saying to them, but at least they’re going to hear every word and you can communicate that without them feeling the anger.

Gabe: Now, by the way, if you are angry, they should know that you’re angry. And it’s perfectly fine to say, “Look, I’m really mad about this. I resent the fact that I’ve now got to take time out of my day and go have a conversation about why you did this bad thing. I would much rather have a conversation with them about why you’re doing so awesome and how great that is, but we’re not in that world today.” Because look, I’m not saying a kid should ever get a free pass for doing something bad.

Gabe: There’s accountability and there should be discipline in that. Again, in a shopping list voice, “So I understand you’ve been, you’ve got to eat your lunch in the principal’s office for the next week. That’s what he said. But in addition to that at home, these are now the restrictions on you as a direct result of this. Hopefully you’re not going to do this sort of thing again so we don’t have to impose more restrictions, because I don’t like having to impose restrictions on you, but I have to because I’m your parent and that’s my job. One option is I could just pretend I’m not your parent. Or I could just ignore my responsibilities as a parent and that leads to all kinds of other things. Doesn’t even matter. I’m not going down that road so we don’t have to discuss it, but I like giving the child the different perspectives.

Andy: Yeah, that’s cool. It’s so much easier to hear when it’s calm and dispassionate and it’s not coming in the form of screaming in your face.

Gabe: Yeah. I would say the shopping list voice, it is extremely effective in any situation in which you are angry about something and you need to give feedback or address an issue. But I would say this. To ensure that you deliver something in a shopping list voice is you’ve got to practice it first.

Andy: Yeah, because I could see trying to do that thing, “Just called and…”

Gabe: Yeah, right, as you’re ripping the arm off the chair without even.

Andy: Yeah, right.

Gabe: Yeah. So listen, there are lots of ways you can relieve stress. You can punch a pillow, do breathing exercises, take a run around the block, go to the bating cage. That’s for a different podcast, is how to relieve stress, but no shortage of methods to do that just a few clicks away, but do that and then practice the delivery of the message in the shopping list voice. And if you can’t maintain the shopping list voice throughout the entire message, then you’re not ready. Go do something again.


About Gabe Karp

Gabe Karp is the author of Don’t Get Mad at Penguins.

Gabe was previously a trial lawyer, specializing in class action litigation, commercial litigation, and legal malpractice. He is now a venture capitalist, serving as a partner at Detroit Venture Partners, and Lightbank.  He’s served on the boards of over fifteen companies.

Gabe was also the Executive Vice President and General Counsel of ePrize, Inc. (now known as Merkle), an interactive promotions company. He has personally overseen the legal clearance of more than 13,000 interactive promotions in 44 countries. Crain’s Business named Gabe as General Counsel of the Year for the State of Michigan in 2011.

 He frequently speaks on building cultures optimized for success, leadership development, and conflict management.

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