Some of us avoid conflict with our loved ones because we don't want to piss them off or rock the boat. But having healthy arguments can be an important part of a relationship. Here's how to do it.
If you know you're going to bring up a difficult subject with someone you love — whether it's a family member, partner, or close friend — it's a good idea to choose the right setting. I spoke with Victoria Pynchon, cofounder of She Negotiates and co-author of A is for Asshole: The Grownups' ABCs of Conflict Resolution, who advocates having tough conversations over food. She says, "everyone's right when they say 'break bread together' — that is the best way to begin a difficult conversation." For partners, I also recommend a setting where you can touch each other — a hug or stroke of the hair can signal more powerfully than words that you still love someone even if you might be upset about something. For this reason, I'm not such a big fan of bringing up potentially conflict-producing subjects in the car — save long drives for giving your kids the sex talk.
Conflict is scary for lots of people, but if you approach it with the attitude that something good will come of it, you and your loved one will be a lot less freaked out. Says Pynchon,
Whenever you're going to begin a conversation with someone about a difficult topic, I would preface it for them, and then I would create [an] atmosphere of hope and safety by being very positive about the ability of both of you to work the problem through, and provide assurances that nothing bad is going to happen. People are conflict-averse because they're afraid that the discussion will go out of control, that it will end in shouting or recrimination, so [...] give assurances to your conversation partner that you know that the two of you can have this conversation without it going out of control, in an even tone, and that it's not your intention to cause strife but rather your intention to improve the relationship.
Everyone tells you to do this once an argument's already begun, but doing it before you even bring the subject up can actually keep things from getting out of hand. I talked to Sura Hart, co-director of The No-Fault Zone and co-author of Respectful Parents, Respectful Kids: 7 Keys to Turn Family Conflict into Cooperation, who says,
I recommend that people get some empathy for [their loved one], and that empathy will help them to soften their hearts and also to get more clarity about what is really the issue that they want to bring forward, not maybe the specific things that have triggered them but what are the deeper needs that they're in touch with.
Seeing both sides of the issue from the outset won't just help keep you from blowing up at your loved one — it will also help you understand what you're really arguing about in the first place.
Whether you or your partner/friend/mom/whatever instigated the argument, Pynchon cautions against a "knee-jerk response" to any criticism or confrontational language. Instead of lashing back with defensiveness or criticism of your own, she advocates this approach: "Act like a problem-solver –- a problem-solver asks questions to ascertain the source of the problem. And reflect back what it is you hear, because most disputes are caused by misunderstandings." Repeating what the other person just said is an old trick, but it's an important one — if what you're hearing is that your mom thinks you should break up with your boyfriend, but she really just wants him to stop chewing gum so loudly, then simply repeating what you think she's saying could give her a chance to clarify.
But what if someone's actively insulting you? Pynchon offers this advice:
If someone's saying something really shitty to you, then you ask a series of diagnostic questions, which are questions designed to ascertain what their motive is in saying that. So: "Why would you say that to me? That makes me feel terrible." [...] Just an open-ended question might well get them to reflect back on their own behavior.
This is a pretty good tip for many areas of social life, but Hart advises that when you're having arguments with loved ones, remember that their anger is often more about them than about you. She explains,
If I had to give a very quick technique it's to remember that people are always talking from their own pain, it's not about me, and to just remind myself of that. So if someone is angry or upset, to breathe and tell myself internally, "this is not about me."
Hart says reminding yourself of this can help you "listen to what their deeper needs are without taking it personally." Of course, your loved one may want you to change something, or may object to something you've said or done. But you can be sensitive to that without perceiving every criticism as an attack — it can be better to see it an expression of someone else's feelings. And if you flip that around, you'll remember that your feelings are your own too, and not necessarily caused by your loved one being a jerk.
Another person's anger is often more about them than about you — but let's face it, sometimes you screwed up. And you might not necessarily know it. Pynchon says part of the process of growing up is to "recognize how wrong we can be and at least hold a space where we're willing to entertain the possibility that we could possibly be wrong, and to accord our friend the respect that they could possibly be right." So recognizing that it's not always about you doesn't mean you can be all like "I'm sorry you feel that way" and check out. If your loved one is upset at you, it behooves you to figure out what you can do to help — sometimes, even if you don't feel you did anything wrong.
We've all been in the situation where neither person sees the other's point of view and nobody is budging. When that happens, says Hart, "Don't keep trying to push through but re-collect yourself and see where you want to go from there." She adds, "it's always helpful to connect with why I'm there — usually it's out of care and love for the person or care for myself in some way." So if you're not getting anywhere, it can be helpful to remind yourself that what you really want is the best for yourself and your loved one — not necessarily to be right or to win. Other tactics include taking a break and sleeping on the argument, or bringing in a third person to help you work through your differences.
I see conflicts as a portal or a way through to more connection. [...] There's always a deeper [place] to get to, and when we can get there, we'll end up through that conflict to a much stronger place.
And Pynchon says of problems in relationships,
When we have the courage to resolve these problems with one another, then we can trust the strength of the relationship better. We will be able to withstand bigger challenges than the one we've just come through, and [...] we'll have not only a better relationship but a relationship we know will stand the test of time.
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She Negotiates [Official Site]
A Is for Asshole: The Grownups' ABCs Of Conflict Resolution
The No-Fault Zone [Official Site]
Respectful Parents, Respectful Kids: 7 Keys to Turn Family Conflict into Cooperation
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