Some people hate it, some people love it, others thrive in it. I’m talking about conflict! We all have our own styles of conflict, but one thing we can all agree on is that disagreements are inevitable. Relationships, partnerships, and career successes all depend on the ability to deal effectively in times of stress. Managing conflict effectively can be daunting for some, but in my professional experience (and personal) I have learned that being true to yourself and your opinions will lead to greater satisfaction in the long run.
Professional mediators work with individuals to help them move towards a resolution; however, you don’t need a live-in professional to help your work through day to day issues in your personal life. Try these practical skills individually or collectively to hack your relationships.
Recognize if you are simply hearing vs listening.
This is one of the most underused skills I see in my practice. Given how much we spend our day listening, you’d think this would be a mastered skill for most. In reality, most people believe that they are listening when really they are focusing on their rebuttal, their to-do list, or that song that was playing on their way home from work. Remember a time when you were super engaged in something (watching the latest episode of Big Little Lies), and compare that to a time when you felt really bored (sitting in a mandatory training for work). Now in the mandatory work training, you may have seemed like you were listening, you were physically present, maybe you were nodding along, but how much of that training can you remember now?
Well it’s the same with active listening…to really hear the other person, you have to listen with all your senses. This means paying attention to what they are saying, and what their body is saying (more on that soon). When you practice this skill, you will become more atuned to what they are “really” saying, and by providing the feedback that you care to listen wholeheartedly you can encourage more positive and open communication in the future.
Read the body language.
Consider non-verbal communication as the little sibling to active listening. This is one of the simplest ways to show the other person that you are tuned in to them, and that you are valuing what they have to say. The easiest way to explain this is to picture you arguing with your partner. Picture that while you are expressing yourself they are on their phone, not looking up, and mumbling mhm, yeah…This is infuriating, right? We’ve all been there.
The reason that this is SO annoying is because while they may be “hearing” you, their body language is telling you otherwise. This can lead you to feel as though your wasting your time, or that they don’t care what you have to say (even if this isn’t true, your body tells a story that others have access to). Trying to keep your body open and relaxed may be one of the quickest ways to de-escalate tension in the room. I tell my clients to keep their arms open rather than uncrossed, this displays willingness to hear what the other is saying, and to keep eyes focused on the other person.
Take the kettle off the flame.
I encourage you to consider my anecdote about the teapot. I was working with a couple when they described their breaking point to me as the husband accidentally breaking a teapot in their home. The fight escalated, and turned into shared blaming, shaming, and name calling. Thus the husband could not understand why his wife was so angry. When pressing for more information, the wife explained that she had recently lost her grandmother, and she felt her husband was not supportive through her grief. Her grandmother had gifted her the teapot, and having it broken felt like a metaphor for her husband’s dismissal of her feelings. When we actually laid out the facts on the table, a lightbulb went off as the husband asked “it was never about the teapot, was it”?
Often, what blows up the argument, is not what’s truly important to the person, but rather just the breaking point. Before you get to the teapot stage, check in with the other person. This can be as simple as: This is what I’ve understood, is that what you mean? Or summarize their point and repeat it back to them. Having the understanding that you’ve gotten it right will help you to move forward productively, and if you’ve gotten it wrong, than they will likely tell you and clarify. Either way, you are moving forward with the same information.
Listen for what’s behind the scenes.
This is where you get to act out that Nancy Drew fantasy from your childhood! Once you mastered the first three skills, you will likely be more aware during the conversation. I tell my clients to look under the surface. Try to listen and really hear what emotions and interpretations the other person is really frustrated about, rather than just reacting to what they are saying.
Once you’ve clarified that you are both on the same page, it’s time to put your detective hat on. Look at the facts (description/substance of what the other person is saying), and the interests (what the person wants/needs). For example: someone who says “you ALWAYS work late”, what are they really upset over? Look for the clues..is this a judgement or an exaggeration? It sounds like they are trying to convey an emotion by overgeneralizing the behavior- maybe they are feeling lonely at night, or left out? By getting at the real issue, you will be in a better position to move forward rather than reacting to the original statement.
Take a breather.
Conflict is tough! Arguing with someone may bring up all sorts of emotional responses within yourself (rage, frustration, anger, worry, sadness…etc). It may take two to tango in a negotiation, but a lot depends on you too. It is important to listen to yourself and your body. It will be more beneficial in the long run to excuse yourself, take a breather, and check-in with yourself. Do what you have to do for yourself first, and this will make you a better negotiator when you return to the table.
It is important to be level-headed in any negotiation, and when you let your emotions get the better of you, you are more likely to settle on an outcome you don’t like, or give into pressure. Taking a second to yourself doesn’t make you a weak negotiator, it helps you to re evaluate your needs, wants, and puts your self-care on top.
Even when you feel like you could just explode at the other person, it is always best to put your best foot forward during conflict. Believe me, I get it…this is easier said than done; especially when emotions are high. When you keep a level head, and treat the other person with empathy and kindness you are much more likely to achieve a resolution that is better for both parties. It is never helpful to downplay another’s feelings, or just cut them off. Consider a time when your partner told you: “JUST CALM DOWN” (I know this has happened to most of us). Did this help you? Did this make you feel calm? I know for me and my clients this only helped to ignite more rage, and made me feel like that person just wasn’t listening to me at all.
Another place I see many couple get stuck is when being truth seekers. Rather than assuming someone is lying or being deceptive, it can be helpful to consider that their version of reality may just be different from yours. Often times “winning” an argument by being right doesn’t solve the actual issue. Getting stuck on these details can only derail you from the task at hand; getting on to the fun stuff; making up!
Reframe your understanding!
In any argument, both sides come to the table with positions in mind. This means that they have have demands or requests about how the conflict will be settled. The problem with positions is they they often don’t take into account the whole problem, and they are often one-sided. When listening to the other person, it is important to consider:
What do they need?
Why does it matter to them?
Once you understand what the other’s interests are about, you are one step closer to looking at solutions. Often times, you may have more in common with the other person than you realize. By highlighting the things that you both feel or want, you are setting the stage for finding common ground.
For example, you often fight with your partner about wanting to spice up the relationship, and you feel they never take initiative to make an effort. They may feel judged or discouraged. Here’s the shared experience: “Clearly we both care alot about our relationship, and we both want to make sure that effort is made to keep things exciting”.
Agree on a ‘good enough’ resolution.
Once you are sharing the same reality (even partially) it’s time to shift towards resolution.
One easy way to do this is by taking the problem statement, and flipping it to something more positive and future focused. Consider our above example, the flipped statement could be: “I’ve heard that it can be important to set aside some time during the week for a date night, but we always end up ordering in…do you think you could plan a dinner out next week?” When coming to a resolution, I always urge my clients to consider what would be “good enough”. This may feel like compromise because one partner is being clear and asking for what they want; however, it sets the stage for the other to be successful and accomplish a common goal.
Most negotiations end in compromise on the part of both parties, and if one party is getting everything they want, this may be fuel for another argument in the near future. It is often better to meet in the middle, and consider the bare bones of what you would really need to feel okay at the end of any argument.
Know when to step away.
The number one most important part of any negotiation is making sure that you are safe (emotionally and physically). Research tells us that during tense times in relationships, there is a higher than average likelihood that violence can occur. Remember that name calling, coercion, manipulation, making threats, physical aggression, violence towards objects, and other behaviors that make you feel unsafe are all red flags. It is important that you listen to your internal radar, and seek support or advice when you feel things are getting out of hand. It is also important to notice when you are in a situation that feels never ending, conflict and violence can be cyclical, and if you find yourself having the same argument multiple times without resolution, it may be time to call in some help. There are many professionals who specialize in helping individuals and couples move through conflict safely. There is no weakness in asking for help!