These days it seems like the conflict meter is off the charts. We seem to be engaging in more highly charged conversations than ever before. Whether you are talking to a friend, a partner, or a co-worker there are ways to disagree that don’t have to damage the relationships. Today I am going to focus on some ground rules. It is important to have some rules that help you and your partner establish boundaries while addressing the issues without harming the relationship. Here are 10 ground rules that help make resolving disagreements possible. How many of these you consistently follow?
- No Name calling! Name calling, put-downs, insults are intentional injuries that will most likely result in retaliation and defensiveness. This will lead you down a path that is difficult to turn around and have a productive conversation.
- NO threats. If you are constantly threatening to leave the relationship your partner will naturally respond in a defensive way. You want to learn how to stay in dialogue and if you are trying to find a way out of the relationship it’s tough to work through conflict.
- NO blocking exits. This is NOT a good idea for obvious reasons. It’s an aggressive stance. We can’t force our partner to have a discussion with us. You should always allow your partner to walk away from a discussion if they feel unsafe or if they feel like they need a cooling off period. We can actually think more clearly when we have calmed down.
- NO getting physical. There is absolutely NO reason to put your hands on your partner in an unloving way especially during a conflict. There should be no objects thrown, doors slammed or fists though the wall. If you feel yourself getting to close to this place, you need to immediately take a time out. Go and calm yourself down before you re-engage with your partner. No exception!
- No yelling. This one is hard sometimes. When we feel frustrated or angry yelling can be a habit. Healthy conflict is about engaging in dialogue in a skillful way. Yelling at each other is unskillful. I talk a lot about the distinction between skillful vs. unskillful ways of being. Raising your voice with your partner turns the discussion into an argument. When one of you raises your voice, your partner will meet you in that manner. Nothing productive will be discussed.
- Deal with one issue at a time. Sometimes when we are angry we want to bring up everything but the kitchen sink…as the saying goes. It is important to stay focused on the issue that is being discussed. Be careful not to bring up issues to distract the conversation to another unresolved conflict. Like…”yeah but what about the time you made that horrible mistake” Now we are not only dealing with the issue at hand but also past unresolved issues. The brain is better equipped to deal with one issue at a time.
- One person talking at a time. When I was facilitating groups for kids, we would have a talking stick that was passed around in the group. The talking stick was a well worn, decorated, small log. When you held the stick, you had the floor. That meant you were talking and others were listening. One of the most important skills to better manage conflict is to really hear what is underneath the content of the conflict. What is underneath are deeper emotions and longings. Once we can hear these emotions and longings we can better understand what the conflict is really about.
- Be civil. This means being courteous and polite. I understand, this is no small task when we are feeling angry. Just remember, feeling angry or frustrated is completely ok, it’s what we DO with that angry that needs to be managed.
- Speak for yourself, not your partner. We can develop a bad habit of speaking for our partner and not really knowing how to speak for ourselves. If you notice yourself telling your partner how they feel thats a clue that you have probably developed this bad habit. How do YOU feel when you hear your partner say or do what they say or do?
- Know when to take a break. Typically when we are having highly emotionally charged conversations our amygdala is activated. This is the emotion center of the brain. Taking a break allows our amygdala to calm down and take a breath. We really need our prefrontal cortex to take charge. This is the part of our brain that can think clearly and make better decisions about what to say and what NOT to say.
Disagreements are normal. Learning how to have conflict that is clean and clear is the skill you want to develop. It doesn’t involve acting defensively, insulting or injuring your partner. AND it doesn’t involve just keeping it all to yourself. Recognize that the way in which you work through differences isn’t about the content. It’s about being willing to listen to one another’s point of view and effectively communicating your feelings and needs.
More than ever, right now, we need to become more skillful in managing our conflict and building safe, secure, healthy relationships.
Let’s take good care of each other.
Lee LeGrice, PhD, LCSW