Conflict can be messy business, especially if emotions are spiked and the issues are personal. It can be especially difficult to respond to anger, volatility, and reactivity. Few of us are master communicators who can calmly navigate a treacherous conversation. However, there are some tips and tricks that can help promote more productive and positive communication.
I like to start by addressing the two roles of communication. Most people who manage conflict poorly do so because they mix-up the order of the two roles of communication. They think the goal of communication is to resolve the issue. Wrong. Research shows somewhere around 69% of relationship conflict is perpetual. That means even if you manage to resolve the issue this time, it will poke it’s head again somewhere else. The goal, therefore, is not just to become master problem-solvers, but to learn to talk about disagreements and issues in ways that both partners feel heard and respected. I like to do this by defining the role of communication as twofold:
Role #1: Listen carefully to how you each feel about the issue (i.e. body language, frustration, sadness, etc.). Tip: Word it back to each other in your own words, to ensure you understand correctly.
Role #2 (if you get to it): Then respond to the issue.
We often jump straight into detective mode, or problem solving mode in conflict, when the primary concern that needs to be addressed is how we feel about the issue.
When we jump straight to problem solving and detective mode before taking time to listen and understand each others feelings on the issue, it can feel dismissive and we are missing out on a valuable foundation for conversation. Here is a dialogue that highlights this kind of communication:
Instead of: “Why are you so pissed off?”
Try: “I’m getting the sense that you’re upset, is it something you want to talk about?”
Instead of: Walking away.
Try: “I’m feeling frustrated and overwhelmed, I’m not trying to avoid the issue, but I think I just need some time and space and then we can come back to this.”
Instead of: “You’re always like this, you know what your problem is: you never listen!”
Try: “It’s really important to me that we can have conversations where we can sit and listen to each other rather than ignoring or just reacting out of anger, I’m hoping that’s something you want too.”
Instead of: “What the hell is wrong with you?”
Try: “I can tell you’re frustrated, I’m sure I’ve played some part in that and I’m hoping we can talk it through whenever you’re ready.”
Notice how the concern in these responses does not focus on what is making a person angry or upset, but how they feel about it.
If someone is upset, they don’t want to hear “why are you so pissed off?” They want to feel heard and respected. If someone is being negative and critical, it’s not usually helpful to criticize them for it. It’s often more helpful to let them know it seems like they are struggling and you can tell they are bothered by something.