In every relationship, conflict is inevitable. Learning how to move through conflict is one of the most important communication skill you can acquire to strengthen your relationship. Oftentimes, simply stepping back from the argument to hear what the other person is saying can diffuse the disagreement, opening it into something more meaningful and productive for both.
Take two of my clients in couples counseling, Tina and Jack. They feel close to each other and enjoy spending time together. When they encounter conflict, however, they are unable to reach resolution and instead spend prolonged periods of time feeling hurt and disconnected. Recently they came to a session still fuming from something that happened a few nights ago.
Jack went out with Tina and her friends because she wanted him and her friends to get to know one another. Even though he doesn’t have much in common with Tina’s friends, Jack went anyway because it was important to Tina. Eventually, tired of making conversation, he walked over to the bar to watch sports on TV. Completely livid, Tina walked over and yelled at him in front of everybody, infuriating Jack. They immediately continue the argument in my office:
“I can’t believe you yelled at me like that in front of the whole restaurant!”
“How could you be so rude, just walking away like that?”
“I always pay attention to your friends and sometimes you aren’t nice to my friends so how dare you criticize me for just watching a little football?”
“What are you talking about? I’m always nice to your friends!”
“Nobody cared anyways …”
“Obviously how I felt wasn’t important to you…”
Underneath, each of them was feeling hurt and was trying to communicate this to the other because they wanted their feelings to be understood and validated by the other. However, because they were talking or yelling at the same time, no one was listening and no one was being heard. This often happens in arguments because we feel that if we don’t prove our point first, then we will be forced to concede our point to the other side. Most couples get caught in this ‘either/or’ perspective – either my feelings are right or your feelings are right – which then escalates into a larger conflict that is much harder to resolve.
In actuality, both Tina and Jack had a valid point of view. If they instead took turns expressing their feelings with a ‘both/and’ perspective that allows for two different and equally valid viewpoints, they could turn the argument into a conversation where each person takes a turn listening and empathizing with the other.
When facilitating this ‘both/and’ approach to conflict, I always begin by acknowledging the validity of their feelings and by pointing out that both of them are trying to say something really important to the other. Then we begin the process of learning how to listen and understand each other’s perspective without feeling that we are dismissing our own. This approach involves four simple steps:
1. Focus on one side at a time. Arguing at the same time won’t get you anywhere, and you’ll just end up fighting over who gets heard. Instead, choose which person is going to go first with the understanding that the second person will have an equal amount of time and space to express his or her feelings. When the first person feels complete, then you switch to second person’s perspective.
2. As the listener, ask questions until you understand why. You can say things like “how did that make you feel?” or “why do you feel that way?” Feelings are a result of a person’s individual interpretation of a situation, and perspective is sometimes a complicated thing to understand. Once you understand your partner’s perspective of the situation, their feelings usually make sense. Your goal as listener is to understand your partner’s world without feeling that you are invalidating your own.
3. Empathize. Now that you understand how your partner is feeling and why, you communicate that understanding without dismissing your own experience. For example, Tina might say: “I understand that telling you all those things in front of my friends really hurt you and maybe that wasn’t the right place. Of course that upsets you. I understand.” Rather than proving ourselves right, what we really want is to know that our partner has listened and understands how we feel. This is empathy.
4. When one person feels complete, then switch to the other person. Once it feels like the first person is finished speaking, always ask if there is anything else that they want to tell you. When they say “no”, it is then your turn to explain your feelings and actions.
If we follow these steps, discussing our feelings becomes a lot easier. We all want our partner to understand how we feel. So the next time you get into an argument where you are both feeling defensive or upset, try taking a step back and simply saying, “tell me more”, then move through the four steps discussed above. This instantly turns the argument into a conversation because your partner feels that there is an opening to be heard and then they in turn can calm down and listen to what you have to say.