By the time most people make it to David Kaplan’s doorstep, they are desperate, confused, and angry. He likes ’em that way.
A licensed practicing psychologist, professor, and director of graduate counseling at New York’s Alfred University, Kaplan is a certified problem solver. He’s also a historian, a liberator, a role model, a disciplinarian, and a dignified listener with 15 years experience in the field of conflict resolution.
Kaplan specializes in domestic counseling, but his techniques and interpretations aren’t limited to the home and hearth. In fact, his observations regarding seniority, custom, objectivity, and respect provide fresh and relevant insights for the new world of work.
Do you have certain conflict resolution tools that you take out and use in different situations?
I can tell you my general approach for resolving conflicts between couples. First, I give them a speech about the problems of using an adversarial system to resolve conflicts. People are very competitive and very adversarial, so we are accustomed to putting things in a win-lose setting. That’s a prescription for problems, because nobody likes to lose. So I ask families to try and transform a win-lose situation into a win-win situation where everybody wins. Then they inevitably say, “How do you do that?”
My job is to teach families the art of compromise — to brainstorm possibilities that may differ from what any one person wants, but manage to make everyone happy. The key is not to give in to one particular person’s desires, because once you say, “We’ll do it your way,” that person wins and everybody else loses. Although everyone has to give up something, each person also must feel that his or her expectations will ultimately be met.
Do you find this process especially challenging when parents feel they have seniority and, therefore, should not have to compromise?
Sure, that can certainly happen. Some people say, “I’m the parent; I should get my way simply because I’m the parent.” At that point, we have a discussion of mutual respect. In my experience, the biggest single problem that causes youths today to act out is a lack of respect for adolescents and children by their elders, parents, and schools.
It’s understandable in many cases, but most teachers do not feel a need to respect their students as much as they themselves want to be respected by their students. So the students in turn say, “Why should I respect this teacher when they don’t respect me?” One way that we can show respect in the family is to value all people’s needs, and to realize that children’s needs count too. I tell parents one of the ways they can show respect for their children is to compromise. I also tell them not to give up so much that they feel they are not being a good parent or are compromising their parenting. I ask them, “What are you willing to give up that would still maintain the integrity of your parenting?” Once kids begin to see that, “Gee, Mom and Dad are willing to give up something,” then the kids start to show some flexibility, too.
Do you encounter similar gender dichotomies when dealing with couples?
In my experience, conflict resolution techniques depend more on the family you came from than what gender you are. We tend to do what our families did, because that’s what we grow up with — we assume that everybody does it that way. So if you come from a family that is flexible and compromises, that respects different people’s opinions and gets into win-win situations, then you’re going to continue that tradition. If you come from a family where everybody is constantly fighting to get their own way, then that’s what you’re going to do in your marriage.
Do you find it is easier to introduce new ways of thinking to the youngest generation because they are less entrenched in tradition?
Actually, I focus on the adult generation because they have the incentive to change. If you tell parents, “You can be the ones to stop this. You can be the ones who do not hand this down to your children and your grandchildren,” then that empowers them to start a new cycle of conflict resolution.
How do you stay objective, keep yourself out of the fray, and help both sides?
That’s an eternal question that comes up in family counseling. The answer I have, which not everybody agrees with, is not to remain objective. Instead, I move in and out and align myself with different family members at a given time. When Dad has an idea that makes a lot of sense, I align myself with him and, say, “That’s wonderful. Let’s work on that.” When Mom says something unhealthy that is going to disrupt the process, I may get on her case. But then when she says something positive, I’ll support her. The trick is to align yourself with everybody equally. Thus, I’m not seen as playing favorites, yet I’m not remaining neutral or objective either.
How do you align yourself with those family members who don’t speak up?
It gets back to the issue of respect. Throughout counseling, I let each member of the family know that I respect them. At the beginning, if kids want to be quiet, I let them know that I respect them; if they would like to play a game or draw or just sit quietly, that’s fine. That’s their decision. As we go around and as we talk, I try and respect their opinions and their values. If and when they do say something, I try and show that I respect those feelings. The more I do that, the more likely they are to speak up.
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