Today I again became the referee during a debate between two of my sons. For the most part, they were managing it well. However, it was veering into “he said, he said” territory. I sensed resolution eluding them, so I inserted myself into the discussion with my favorite question. In this post we discuss how to discipline a child without yelling by diffusing conflict with a simple question.

At the end of this post, we’ll chat about the secondary – but perhaps most important – benefit that comes when we help diffuse conflict between kids.

The clarity-bringer

The main question I pushed toward: “What do you want? Right now? As a result of this discussion, what do you want from your brother?”

There were a handful of wants on both sides:

  • They wanted to be listened to completely without being interrupted.
  • “I don’t want my brother to ‘force’ chores on me.”
  • And, “more cooperation when we’re home alone watching our little brothers.”

Rational, fair, and clear requests.

Overcoming tendencies

However, what was getting them off track were two classic behaviors they each tend to exhibit:

  • One likes to make “always and never” statements. These are always inflammatory and never help. See what I did there? Always and never are tricky words. They’re like sand in the gears of healthy communication.
  • The other declares a mistrial based on the technicalities. “You said always, and that’s not true!” So, rather than listen and learn, he wants to get off the hook by citing “that one time…”.

Amidst the swirl, I like to inject the “What do you want?” question. It forces each player in the drama to pause for a moment and do some self-reflection. Sometimes, the answers are quite revealing, even unrealistic:

  • “I want him to do what I say all the time.” (get real)
  • “I want to not ever be interrupted.” (dream on)

Usually, when we get on the “what do you want” line of questioning, both parties start listening a bit more. Instead of absorbing mor