Necessary Conversations Without Unnecessary Conflict

BY NICK GWYNN

Conflict

Do you ever find yourself in a conflict with your partner, friend or family member, where it seems the only options are to either say nothing (stonewall), push the issue (argue) or cut the person off completely (divorce, separation, estrangement etc.) ???

You can feel as though nothing you can do will work with this person or this relationship. You sense that you are ‘damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t’. You have very real and very necessary conversations that you need to have, but it seems that you just can’t have them without creating further conflict and potentially, further estrangement. If we are honest, all of us have been in this situation, most of us many times. So what can we do? Here are two research based suggestions that work together.

  1. BOUNDARIES Clinical Psychologist and author, Dr Henry Cloud describes Boundaries as ‘property lines that define where I end and another person begins.’ They help us to determine what we are responsible for and what we are not. Research Professor, Brene Brown goes on to to say, ‘Boundaries are not thick walls, they are about respect, they are about what is ok and what is not ok’. Boundaries can take different forms in relationships, but the common boundaries that we can exercise are; saying NO, setting time limits, telling the truth and geographical relocation. Let’s be straight. There are going to be times when a person’s ongoing behaviour is so unacceptable (i.e. abuse, violent etc) that you just need to get out of there and find safety. Additionally, there are going to be times when people are just plain unreasonable and you have no other option but to ‘geographically relocate’ either to another room in your house, or even to a different continent. In less extreme situations the art of ‘saying No’ and ‘telling the truth’ is essential for relational sanity and a ‘muscle’ worth exercising. One of the central aspects of having boundaries, is that they help you to be realistic and honest about your limits and keep toxic emotions such as resentment and contempt at bay. Not surprisingly, the most compassionate and emotionally intelligent individuals on earth, are also the most boundaried.
  2. COMMUNICATING TRUTHFULLY AND LOVINGLY Most people are adept at telling people the truth, but telling people the truth with love is another thing. The skill of being able to communicate authentically from an intellectual and emotional space in the midst of potential or existing conflict, without incurring more conflict is a rare thing. The enemy that is created through ‘truth without love’ is anxiety. In the context of conflict, anxiety is a killer. Because of conflict induced anxiety we often default to what Dr John Gottman calls, ‘The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’. (Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt and Stonewalling). These communication habits are provoked by and further induce anxiety, thus creating a cycle of conflict that is destructive. When we allow anxiety to dictate the landscape of our relationships, they invariably become ’emotional deserts’ that either dry out and die or just become dangerous places to go. Over time a myriad of necessary conversations either end badly or just never happen. The effective antidote to this kind of cycle, is for the speaker to learn how to talk honestly about how they feel (primary emotions) and express positive needs, as opposed to criticising or pouring contempt on the listener. The listener needs to learn to accept responsibility if necessary, practice active listening, express empathy through validation of emotion and to physiologically self soothe (time out/ deep breathe) if the conversation gets heated again.