Conflict. The very term can trigger somewhat of an anxiety response. So what exactly is it? When I look up a definition of conflict I see terms like the following:
Serious disagreement, clash, fight, battle, struggle, collision and incompatibility.
Wow, no wonder the thought of conflict can make us anxious – all those words make it seem antagonistic! But is that really what conflict is?
I think conflict in personal relationships simply means two people disagree on something. It may not even be a disagreement, and rather is one or both people feeling as though they are not being heard.
One thing about people is that we aren’t the same. In any interpersonal relationship there are different personalities and differences of opinion, and as a result we WILL have conflict. Why is this bad? It’s a natural part of interpersonal relationships, so why do we hide it and have a hard time dealing with it?
We have a hard time dealing with conflict because we have this notion that it is a bad thing, and because of that we don’t have positive ways of dealing with it.
Ask yourself truthfully, how do you deal with conflict and how did you learn the approach you take? It is one of the most important skills that we can have, but dealing with conflict also happens to be one of the things we do the worst job of. In fact many of us never develop the skills needed for dealing with conflict.
I’m pretty sure there are conflict resolution classes, but those are likely attended by people like negotiators and human resources managers (I’m guessing here, as I’m neither). Shouldn’t dealing with conflict be a fundamental skill? We all deal with it continually in our lives, so why don’t we learn it? Why isn’t it a part of the curriculum, right up there with Math and English?
One approach I’ve seen to conflict is avoiding it altogether. I suspect this stems from the belief that conflict is an indicator of problems, which is perceived as a bad thing. For perfectionists problems aren’t acceptable as they violate that perfection. Maintaining an outward appearance of perfection is important, so problems are ignored. After all, we ALL know that if you pretend that something isn’t there eventually it will just go away (that was sarcasm by the way, just in case you weren’t clear).
There are all sorts of issues with this approach. First, nothing is perfect. Problems will arise, but this is actually positive as they are how we learn and grow. By denying the existence of problems in your relationship you are actually stunting its growth. Getting issues out in the open and dealing with them is what allows you to improve and your relationships to thrive.
Additionally, if you hold everything in you don’t have a release valve. If you continually brush things under the carpet pretending they aren’t there, eventually that carpet gets really bumpy and it gets hard to even walk on. If things are never addressed, this becomes the perfect recipe for resentment (which is up there with jealousy as one of the most corrosive emotions to a relationship).
The Need to Win
On the opposite end of the spectrum are people who seem to enjoy conflict and see it as a competition or a battle of wills. For these people there is a need to “win”, and conflict becomes a power struggle that is more about dominance and control than the issue at hand. There’s one big problem with winning though. If you always need to win, in the long term you are going to lose.
Every relationship has a more dominant personality, and that personality tends to be the one who drive things. But there needs to be some balance. The less dominant person needs to feel engaged and feel like they are part of the team. They need to know they are being heard and their opinions are valued. If that doesn’t happen? Guess what, you’ve got another breeding ground for resentment – yay!!! The constant need to be right and control will end up driving the other person away.
Finding a Balance
Both avoidance and dominance are really about control, and both are equally damaging to relationships. To approach conflict in a healthy way you need to find some balance between these approaches. It’s difficult to say exactly what that balance should look like, and I find most people tend to lean one way or another.
Personally I lean towards avoidance. I tell myself that I just pick my battles and that I will fight for the things I really believe in. And that’s true. But I also I don’t do conflict very well. The good thing is I realize that, and know that it’s something I need to work on.
In his book Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work Dr. John Gottman states that the frequency with which people fight doesn’t say anything about their chances at marital success. What important is *how* they fight. So there must be better and worse ways of dealing conflict.
Finding A Better Way
In university I took Philosophy classes. A big part of Philosophy was trying to look at things logically, and objectively. We would look at different topics, often emotionally charged ones like abortion and the existence of God; and we would have to put our own feelings aside in order to present logical arguments both for and against something. It was a ton of fun, and really – who doesn’t love Epistemology?
I think the approach of trying to look at things analytically is positive (in most cases) and puts you in the best position to make decisions. There’s just one problem though…
We aren’t robots, and we do have emotions. And sometimes those emotions can override everything.
Have you ever heard of emotional flooding? Here’s a description of it (from this site) in the context of conflict in a relationship:
Emotional flooding is the term given to the feelings of one partner who are so overwhelmed by their partner’s perceived negativity and their own reaction to it that they become swamped by dreadful and intense feelings.
Any person who is engaged in and experiencing emotional flooding cannot hear without distortion or respond with clarity in a dispassionate way. They find it hard to organize their thinking and they instead fall back on primitive reactions. They just want things to stop, or want to run or, sometimes, to strike back. They react and do not relate.
I think we have all experienced this feeling at one time or another, but it becomes a major issue when it happens with regularity. For many anxiety sufferers this sort of emotional flooding is a part of everyday life.
If someone is experiencing emotional flooding any sort of rational attempts at dealing with conflict are gone, and you run the risk of having things escalate. Because of this it is important to recognize when this is happening, as there is no point continuing a discussion.
A few weeks back I attended a conference and went to a workshop on team building. One of the ideas presented was that many successful teams have formalized rules for handling conflict. I think this idea of a “conflict agreement” makes sense in any frequent interpersonal relationships (such as the one with your partner). The idea is that you come up with an agreed upon approach for handling conflict together.
For example, you may agree that you will always get all issues out in the open, but acknowledge that if things are escalating either of you can say something like “I know we need to discuss this, but I’m having a hard time dealing with this right now. Let’s stop here and pick this up later”. The key to making this work is that you have to have some rules about what “later” means. I recommend that you agree to pick things up in a few hours if possible, and never let anything go for more than 24 hours.
When approaching any sort of issues, remember to focus on the point. Your goal should be to get issues out in the open to try to improve mutual understanding and ensuring that you are heard. It is important to not make things personal and to be conscious of “how” you approach conflict.
I can’t speak for all relationships, but I suspect people will be more receptive to something like “when you did X, it made me feel Y” than “you are an inconsiderate jerk”. When John Gottman talked about “how” people fight, a big part of it was softening your approach and de-escalating. There is a significant difference between constructive criticism and plain old complaining.
When you are the person on the receiving end, remember that this isn’t (or shouldn’t be) an attack on you personally. It’s very easy to hear “you did something wrong” and interpret it as “you are a bad person”. Remember, it may have been hard enough for someone to raise an issue with you. Try not to perceive it as an attack, and instead treat conflict as an opportunity to learn and improve.
Dealing with conflict is a skill like any other. It can be developed and improved over time, with practice. And guess what – you’re going to have plenty of opportunities to practice. If you claim that you don’t have conflict in your interpersonal relationships, there’s a pretty good chance you have a really lumpy carpet.
We need to stop thinking of conflict as a negative, and instead view it as a way of improving mutual understanding. When dealing with conflict remember the point. Think of what really matters and check your ego at the door. Be willing to compromise, and don’t keep score. And lastly, be willing to apologize and admit when you are wrong (guys, I know that last part can be hard).
The more you can improve your communication skills and deal with conflict in a positive manner, the healthier you relationships will be.