The third part of Conflict in Relationships explores ways to create an effective communication guideline to help couples develop a healthy response mechanism to disagreements, differences and thereby conflicts. Before drawing the basic frame, it is important to clarify what normally happens when couples find themselves in a conflict situation.
Here are some of the traps to be watchful of as their absence might potentially intensify and escalate a situation.
- The need to want to be correct – Many times couples focus most of their energies in proving themselves correct and their partner wrong, instead of addressing their differences or solving the issues.
- Fail to account for changes overtime – People and relationships are evolutionary in nature. A relationship can be broken down into two individuals and the relationship itself, with all the parts being dynamic. The challenge happens when these changes are not factored into the relationship. So it’s critical that couples develop an ability to talk through these changes in their lives.
- Overlap of roles – Every individual plays multiple roles in their lives. And sometimes we play different roles with the same person so conflict can arise due to the difficulty to separate the responsibility of these respective roles. For example, a discussion with your spouse about your parents activates the role of a partner and that of a child. It is important to be mindful of which role is predominantly being played out during the discussion.
With the above forming the necessary factors of effective communication, we’ll now talk about the techniques needed to deal with conflict.
- Active listening
What it means – Listen to your partner without interruption
Challenge – The difficulty we experience is in our ability to listen first without reacting.
What to do – Listen to understand and not to react and respond. Give your partner the time to finish their side of the story. Ask open-ended questions if needed to get more information so that you get a better understanding of what is being said.
- Respect the sharing
What it means – When your partner shares his or her perspective on something or feelings about an experience, acknowledge that sharing.
Challenge – Often there is a tendency to become dismissive when something doesn’t make sense to us.
Partner A – ‘I didn’t like the way he talked to me.’
Partner B – ‘What was the problem? I didn’t see anything wrong with her way.’
It’s clear that two individuals think differently about the same incident and when one is sharing, the other is dismissive of their experience.
What to do – Most people are afraid to share their thoughts and feelings because they feel it will not be acknowledged. So when someone shares his or her impact of the experience, be empathic. Just because their experience is different from yours doesn’t mean that it’s not real for them. The fact that you are open to listening to your partner’s feelings is a sign of inclusivity.
- Learn to differentiate between understanding and agreeing
What it means – Understanding is about looking at another person’s perspective. It is different from agreeing with that perspective.
Challenge – Often we resist understanding a diverse point of view because we believe if I understand, I have to agree.
What to do – Listen attentively. Look at both the content and context of their point of view. Also, try to read the feelings being expressed. Being open to understanding a different point of view helps to decide how to respond in a more effective manner.
- Own your experience when sharing with your partner
What it means – Our experiences are a function of the way we view things. And it’s important to accept that we feel a certain way about them because of how we are structured internally. So while the trigger could be external, each individual responds to the trigger differently.
Challenge – More often than not we tend to process our hurt and anger by blaming others.
What to do – Use ‘I’ instead of ‘You’ thereby owning up your own experience. It is important to understand that the impact of a trigger is shaped by our experiences growing up. And therefore it is up to us to acknowledge and accept our experiences and communicate them to our partner for better understanding. Therefore, it is advisable to say, ‘I felt hurt when you did that…’ instead of saying, ‘you hurt me.’
- Account for the locus of control
What it means – Find what is within the control of your partner and the relationship and what is outside it.
Challenge – Often people find it easier to complain about a certain action or behaviour as if their partner is completely at fault and responsible for it. The underlying expectation is that only they have to change thereby exempting you from taking any corrective action. For example, getting angry with your partner because he or she snores or if their work requires frequent travel.
What to do – Here, it’s essential to reflect on what these represent for you and how they make you feel. So identify exactly what about your partner’s snoring or travel irritates you. Does it disturb your sleep? Does it wake up the baby? Do you feel lonely when your partner travels? Do you feel burdened with all responsibilities when they do? Exploring these can help both of you to find options that are mutually beneficial.
- Separate different issues when attempting to resolve a conflict
What it means – We might have multiple grudges/grievance against our partner and every situation or incident doesn’t call for the same kind of intensity of response. So it’s important to keep to the issue in mind at any point in time.
Challenge – Over time, we accumulate history and baggage in our relationships, which can enter into unrelated discussions and conversations resulting in an out of context emotional outburst. For example, being extremely angry with your partner for not buying bread on their way home and missing a doctor’s appointment when the child is unwell.
What to do – Watch out for reactions disproportionate to the present stimulus. It could be your baggage talking. Another indication is to make generalized statements. When we bring in our baggage, we digress from finding a solution to the current problem. Hence it’s advisable to refrain from using words like ‘you always forget,’ or ‘you’re never there.’
- Communicate about the action and not the person
What it means – To concentrate the discussion around the issues in question and not make it about the person in general.
Challenge – In the middle of an unpleasant discussion, we can find ourselves, struggling with making the other person see our point of view or we feel that the other person is somewhat making sense but we’re not yet ready to be open to their perspective. That’s when we tend to move from the issue to personal character attacks. For example, making remarks like, ‘you’re lazy,’ or ‘you’re irresponsible.’
What to do – It is important to be mindful of this switch when it happens. If we’re tempted then it’s important to take a step back and reflect (remember to differentiate between understanding and agreeing as mentioned above). The choice to accept or reject a perspective is yours alone. And every choice has a consequence.
- It is not always about ‘Right’ or ‘Wrong’
What it means – Focus on what works for you and what doesn’t.
Challenge – There is a tendency to categorise things that are unacceptable or don’t work for us as wrong and those that work for us and acceptable as right. When we do this categorization, we get into a non-existent moralistic value based debate which just complicates the discussion further. Also it easily offends people as it denotes rigidity or being inflexible.
What to do – Remember that every individual has a different set of values and principles, which may be different from that of yours. Therefore it’s important to check from your perspective what will be acceptable to you (instead of right) and what will be unacceptable to you (instead of wrong). For example, change ‘it was wrong of you to talk to me like that’ to ‘I am not OK with you talking to me like that.’
When implementing some or all of the above guidelines in our communication with our partners, we will definitely experience an improvement in the quality of our interaction and in handling disagreements or conflict. However, our ability to navigate through these doesn’t ensure that we won’t have difficulties in the relationship.
Our next article, will talk about the important pillars on which the relationship can be rebuild after turbulence.