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Talk About Conflict When You're Not In Conflict

Conflict is a normal and natural part of life. To varying degrees, it happens whenever two or more people consistently spend time together. Resolving conflict effectively and peacefully, in a way in which all parties feel respected and valued, is not natural for those of us who grew up with punitive or adversarial approaches to conflict.

When conflict happens, it can be extremely difficult to resolve things peacefully. Cortisol and adrenaline are coursing through brain and body and the vagus nervous system is in fight/flight or freeze. The amygdala—an almond-sized part of the brain that sounds the alarm when there is danger or conflict—is taking over, literally taking up the majority of the brain’s energy. This is a good thing if our physical safety is threatened because we want to have as much energy as possible to protect ourselves or escape if we are in danger. Unfortunately, the amygdala cannot discern the difference between physical danger and emotional or psychological danger.

The more the amygdala takes over, the less access we have to the middle prefrontal cortex (MPFC) of our brain. This is unfortunate because the MPFC is crucial for resolving conflict peacefully and effectively. The MPFC has the capacity for compassion, for soothing emotions, for empathizing with others and understanding their perspectives, and for coherent decision-making (needs-based decision-making) rather than reactive decision-making.

So how do you become better at resolving conflict? One of the most helpful things is the inner work of resolving implicit issues (old wounds) that get activated during conflict. Another effective strategy is to talk about conflict when you’re not in conflict. If there is an ongoing challenge or conflict that comes up between you and another person, find a time when you feel connected with that person and ask for his or her support with creating a more effective response to the ongoing challenge you’ve been having.

It is absolutely crucial that you don’t enter this dialogue with the intention of judging and blaming the other person for how they have contributed to the conflict in the past, and of telling them how they should do things differently. The intention I suggest is one of collaboration—sharing responsibility and working together to create a more peaceful and supportive response to the conflict.

Here are some suggestions for how to begin a dialogue about an ongoing conflict:

“You know that challenge we seem to have with/when___________________” (whatever the challenge is—getting ready for trips; talking about the kids; when I want more connection and you want more space; etc.) I’d love to find a more effective/peaceful/collaborative/cooperative/ fun/creative (whatever word works for you) way to work through that with you.”

Next, you can demonstrate that you really care about their needs and are not simply setting them up for judgment and blame by following the above opening statement with, “What isn’t working for you about that dynamic/challenge/situation?” Or, you could model some courageous self-responsibility and say, “I don’t like how I _______________ (don’t listen to your side of things; try to make you feel guilty; become critical; whatever your part is in the challenge), and I’m guessing that, when I do that, it is difficult for you.” The other person will likely agree and elaborate on how it is difficult or painful. If she simply says yes in response, then you can ask if there is anything else that is difficult for her in regards to the ongoing conflict.

Next, to express more of your care, I highly recommend you tell them back what you’re hearing: “I want to make sure I’m understanding you, can I tell you what I’m hearing from you?” If you can include needs guesses when you tell the other person what you have heard and understood, it will likely add even more to his or her sense of being understood and valued.

For example, if he or she tells you that what isn’t working is that you are too bossy or too demanding, you can say, “What I’m hearing is that you find me too bossy and demanding. So, do you need more choice or consideration?” Instead of arguing about whether or not you are too bossy and demanding, focus on finding the needs.

Once the other person is satisfied that you have understood what isn’t working for her, then ask her what she or he would like to have happen instead. “Is there anything else you’d like me to understand about what isn’t working? No, ok. So, what would you like to have happen instead?” Again, say back what you’re hearing and include needs guesses, if possible.

Once the other person is satisfied you have understood what she or he would like to have happen instead, then ask if she or he would be willing to hear what hasn’t been working for you and what you would like differently. It can be extremely difficult to hold your side of things until the other person is finished. But it is worth the effort as the other person will likely be more willing to hear your side after you have made an effort to really hear and understand her.

Please be gentle with yourself if this dialogue doesn’t go well. Even though the idea is to have this dialogue when you’re feeling connected, painful feelings can arise and judgments can slip out. It is a dialogue that can be difficult for anyone. Sometimes third party support is needed because too much of our unresolved implicit pain gets activated. However, if you can maintain a desire to be on the same team, to work together, to share responsibility for shifting the conflict, instead of blaming each other, then you will have a better chance of having an effective dialogue. You could include a piece about this in the dialogue, “I want to talk to you about this because I’m tired of fighting with you and would rather work together and feel like we’re on the same team.”

If the dialogue goes well and you come up with a plan for how to do things differently, make sure it’s as specific as possible and WRITE IT DOWN and make sure it is accessible later on when conflict arises. Marshall Rosenberg, founder of Nonviolent Communication, tells an inspiring story of a fellow who really wanted to take more responsibility for his anger during conflict. He wrote down on a card very clear and simple steps for self-empathy and then carried that card in his wallet so it was always easy to access when he became angry. Then, whenever he got angry, he would pull out that card and follow the steps. By using this card, he got so good at dealing with his anger that he stopped using the card, at least until a particularly difficult situation in which his anger took over again and his son said, “I think you’d better get that card Dad.”

If the other person tells you, in one way or another that he doesn’t want to talk about the ongoing conflict, you could offer them some needs guess, “Is it hard for you to trust that I will really listen to your side and won’t judge and blame you? Are you worried that this discussion will turn into an argument? I have not always been able to listen to your side very well, so I’m guessing you don’t trust I could do it now. Is that right?”

Whether or not that the empathy helps, you could then ask, “Is there anything you can think of that we could do to have a collaborative/peaceful/effective dialogue about this?” Again, third party support may be the most helpful thing.

If the other person is not willing at all to talk about how to better work through the conflict, then you might choose to interact with her less or not at all. If less interaction is not a viable option, then you can see how much you can shift on your own by really looking at your part of the challenge and what you can do to transform your side of it, and by getting lots of empathy support from others.

The two questions—“What isn’t working for you about our challenging issue/dynamic?” and, “What would you like to have happen instead?”—can also be used to explore how conflict is handled in general (as opposed to a specific ongoing conflict) between you and another or by a group of people. Moreover, you can broaden the dialogue by starting with two other questions: “How do you feel about conflict in general?” and, “What is working for you with how we have worked through conflict in the past?”

The main goals for these questions about conflict

How do you feel about conflict in general?

What is working for you with how we have worked through conflict?

What isn’t working for you about our challenging issue/dynamic?

What would you like to have happen instead?

are to normalize conflict; to invite and inspire shared responsibility for working through conflict and for forming a strategy or system to respond to conflict; and to inspire a collaborative attitude about conflict—let’s work together to make conflict resolution happen in a way in which there is accountability and understanding, honesty and kindness, respect and collaboration.

This Tip for the Road was inspired by the work of Dominic Barter The four questions listed above are adapted from questions that Dominic uses in his Restorative Circle work.

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