Many of us did not grow up seeing our parents argue. As a result, any argument feels like the end of the relationship. In an effort to maintain the relationship, some individuals try to escape conflict through denial, flight or simply giving up on the relationship or themselves. While these responses may bring temporary relief, they don’t generally make things better. Often, they make things worse.
While some seek to avoid conflict, others have learned to dive into conflict and seek a win-lose outcome. One person is going to win, which means the other person has to lose. This might involve providing a long list of reasons why the other person is wrong and you are clearly right or have the more rational perspective. Another approach is seeking to assault the person through verbal attacks (i.e. gossip or slander) or injuring them emotionally, financially, or physically. These approaches generally bring much harm and little good.
There is another way. While you may not have had positive role models in the past, you can choose a response to conflict that brings healing and strengthens. John 10:10 says, “The thief comes only to kill, steal, and destroy; I have come that they may have life and life abundantly.” We are tempted toward approaches that steal our joy, kill our love for one another and destroy relationships. But there is another way.
Steps toward resolution
The next time you find yourself in conflict with your spouse or loved one, try to follow these simple steps:
• Acknowledge the issue and your hope that it can be resolved: The first step is bringing the issue to the table and agreeing on the exact reason for the conflict. Make sure there are no misperceptions or misunderstandings and both are clear on the issues that need to be addressed. After identifying the issue, make a statement such as, “I know we are not on the same page right now, but I want you to know that I love you and I believe we can resolve this together.”
• Listen to your partner without interrupting: The goal here is to make sure that both individuals have the opportunity to share what is important to her/him and why. Stephen Covey, author and consultant, advises, “Seek first to understand and then to be understood.”
When we take the time to listen to others, they feel valued and respected. As a result, they are much more open and willing to listen to our perspective, needs and hopes.
• Empathize and reflect: As you listen, feel free to reflect back to the person what you understand they are saying, needing and hoping. This will not only demonstrate your commitment to resolution, but also help you to make sure you are truly understanding what they are hoping to convey.
• Express your view without blaming or attacking: Now that you have listened to your partner and demonstrated that you are interested in understanding and committed to finding a mutually satisfying resolution, you might say something like, “I think I have a better understanding of where you’re coming from now. Do you mind if I share my experience and ideas about how we might move forward?”
• Acknowledge your contribution: Yes, this is a tough one for many. It requires humility. We live in a culture that encourages winning and reminds us to “never let them see you sweat.” In reality, a little sweat never hurt anyone and the path to success in our professions, relationships and personal fitness is paved with sweat. You may think that the other person is responsible for 80 percent of the conflict. Admit that 20 percent.
• Be specific about how you contributed
• Recognize the hurt that you created in the other person and/or the issues that arose as a result
• Ask how you can make it better
• Agree on a solution: Finally, after you have both shared your experience, needs, desires and hopes, seek a mutually satisfying solution. Just as a cake will not be ready to eat until all the ingredients have been added, mixed together and baked, the conflict will not be ready to be resolved until you move through the proper steps.
An investment worth making
Conflict between parents is not the only type of conflict that arises in families. Another is conflict between children or between parents and children. The steps above are valuable for every conflict and can be used with kids as well as adults. Adults can help kids learn how to effectively resolve conflicts by modeling good conflict resolution skills, coaching kids through the steps above or serving as a mediator between kids to walk them through these steps. Like any skill, it is developed through practice. Families can be wonderful laboratories for learning, practice, reflection and continued practice. As kids learn these skills at home, they will become confident in applying them with their friends and in school. As parents practice them with one another and with their kids, they will increase their ability to effectively resolve conflict in their profession, community and personal relationships.
Terry Morrow, Ph.D. is the president of Morrow and Associates Partnership for Leadership and Transformation. She is an assistant dean and assistant professor at Nova Southeastern University. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.