One of the things I notice when I do couples counselling, is the oft-repeated human condition that epitomises the ancient proverb: “every person is right in their own eyes.” There are always two realities, two perspectives, two opinions that often don’t match. The anatomy of a conflict, in some way, shape or form is going to include this ingredient, and the anatomy of ‘bad conflict’ is going to have this ingredient with the probable addition of either/ all of what Research Psychologist John Gottman calls, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
Something that I’ve personally discovered, that really works in the area of avoiding unnecessary, toxic conflict (not all conflict is bad), is this ingredient called empathy.Empathy is about understanding another person’s thoughts, feelings, and condition from their point of view, rather than your own. The interesting thing about empathy is that, in the words of the Research Professor, Brene Brown, “it can be learnt.” It can be practiced, and through use (like a muscle), can be grown.
The thing is, is that when we get into toxic conflict, we get anxious. When we get anxious, we often communicate anger (a secondary emotion), which then provokes anxiety in the other person, who simultaneously communicates anger back, which provokes even more anxiety. So you get this fear/ anger loop that pushes both parties into a ‘fight/ flight’ state, which is basically all about ‘self-preservation’. The problem with this self-preservation state… is that it renders you incapable of expressing empathy. You are basically thinking about the wellbeing of yourself, not the other person. To put it bluntly, it actually causes you to behave like an emotional baby. This is obviously non-conducive to a loving relationship.
If we want to learn how to have good conflict and avoid toxic conflict as much as possible, we must be intentional about practicing empathy. One way to do this, is by actively listening to your partner, validating their feelings and avoiding trying to push your agenda, argument or opinion, until you can adequately state your partner’s position, to their satisfaction. This is more about understanding your partner’s thoughts and feelings, as opposed to you ‘trying to be right’. When we do this, we start practicing empathy and we move from judgement to compassion and into deeper understanding of our partner. We refrain from criticism, because criticism is what I call, ‘discernment in the absence of connection’.
For more help, check out the Gottman’s Rapaport Model for Conflict