So this is a topic I feel like has come up a couple of times in session in the past couple weeks. It’s something that comes up with all of my clients – individuals, couples, and families – and something that I think that we all struggle with.
Resolving conflicts can be so hard – even for me! We cannot help our emotions and unfortunately they can get in the way of our ability to respond in conflict.
All of us have our “go to’s” in conflicts and they can look different for all of us. My hubby is all about the absolutes. I mention those in my last post. Absolutes are words like “always” and “never” and are really good for putting someone (me) on the defensive. Absolutes have become a joke in my home – we NEVER use absolutes ;). They are also not usually accurate and leave little room for flexibility.
Okay, enough throwing hubby under the bus, for me, personally, I struggle with yelling. I’m a naturally loud person so it doesn’t take much for me to get to yelling. Yelling is so rarely effective. When someone is yelling at you, you are not really able to hear them. Chances are you are either trying to plan your own defense in your head, interrupting them and yelling yourself, or shutting them down completely. And thus, effective communication crawls under the couch and dies – at least for the time being.
So how does one solve a conflict in a productive way? Well funny you should ask – I am going to give you some tips and I highly suggest you practice them, then show them to your partner, your kids, your parents, and run down the streets in your neighborhood shouting (but not too loud ’cause now we know yelling is not an effective mode of communication) your successes to your neighbors.
I already told you about absolutes and yelling and the reasons why they aren’t super great.
Another pitfall is jumping from topic to topic. This goes by some different names depending on the model of therapy but usually looks something like this – Two people are arguing about taking out the garbage and mid argument one of the people says “and when was the last time you did the dishes?” and then all of a sudden the people are onto the dishes and have not resolved the garbage issue. This can also present as bringing up the past in arguments as well as bringing up other people in arguments (siblings like to do this – it decreases tension and reduces the focus away from them and onto whatever terrible thing their sibling has done. Parents can also do this in comparing their child to a sibling or friends to try to build up credit to what they are saying or try to hold their child accountable in a way).
None of these are useful. All that happens is that you go around and around until you forgot what or who it was you were arguing about. So do your best to stay on topic and if the person you are in conflict with brings up something else acknowledge it but return back to the topic. In the above garbage example, that would look like “I hear you about the dishes and we can talk about that later, but right now can we please figure out the garbage stuff?”.
Next seems like a no brainer, but sometimes we all surprise ourselves. Don’t Hit. Ever. Anyone. This goes for women hitting men, men hitting women, women hitting women, men hitting men, parents hitting children, children hitting children, children hitting parents, and anyone else I didn’t mention. Don’t Hit.
When you put your hands on someone else in anger you have crossed a boundary. You have escalated the conflict, broken trust, hurt feelings, and potentially physically hurt someone you care about. The effects can be devastating for both you and the person that you have hurt. Try to take space if you feel yourself getting to this point and if you are having difficulty with this, get thee to a therapist!
While we are talking about respect – don’t name call. It’s not nice. Disagree with your partner or child the way you would a coworker.
Moving on we have “you statements”. If you have been to therapy before you may be familiar with “I statements” – well “you statements are the opposite”. For example, “YOU never (absolute) do anything around here”. Well I don’t know about you, but that makes my defenses go up.
Instead of pointing out all of the things that the person has done wrong, try to talk about what you yourself experienced, felt, and what you need. That would look something like “I’m feeling very overwhelmed with all the housework and I need some more help”. It’s very difficult to argue with someone’s feelings and if you find you and your partner, or child, are arguing about how each other feels – you got it – get thee to a therapist!
Body language in conflict is super important. A crazy amount of communication is nonverbal and if you are pointing your finger, crossing your arms, clenching your teeth, balling your fists, or even more intense, throwing things, you are going to be full-blown arguing in no time. Try to consciously focus on unclenching your body and if you can’t – take a break.
So with all this being said, these are just some of the more common things we do in conflict that can make resolution more difficult. Even with the best of intent, we are sometimes dealing with patterns of resolution (or lack thereof), underlying emotions, or mental health conditions that make these things incredibly difficult. If you find you are having trouble implementing any of these in your personal life, it might be worth evaluating if some therapy could be helpful to you and/or your family!
You don’t have to be explosive to go to therapy to make things run smoother. In fact, going to therapy when things are just a little messed up is so much better in the long run. You wouldn’t wait until you were dying to go to the doctor, right? Nope, you go when you are sick or uncomfortable. Treat your relationships the same.
Happy conflict resolution – may the force be with you!