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Constructive Conflict Management Strengthens RelationshipsElizabeth Ryan

How we deal with conflict is one of the crucial indicators of whether or not our intimate relationship will last. We're naturally inclined to pursue peaceful and predictable environments, so we don't generally welcome conflict. Conflict is experienced when we want or believe something that's at odds with what another person wants or believes. The potential for conflict is heightened in circumstances where another person's choices, expectations, attitudes, needs and priorities impact on our life, which is what happens in intimate involvements. So, conflict is inevitable in healthy relationships because sooner or later our partner is bound to express values that are contrary to our own. Learning how to handle our difficult emotions, such as anger, is one of the keys to conflict management. Our 'natural' way of communicating when we're angry usually isn't the best way, so if we want to sustain love we need to be able to constructively communicate our anger, resentment, frustration and hurt.

Before we explore heartfelt expression, we need to accept the reality that in human form it's impossible to get everything we want. By insisting and demanding we sabotage the potential to receive love. Also, we are not giving love when we submit to our partner's expectations or values. Love is given freely. When we give from a sense of obligation, guilt or fear, that is not love. Unfortunately some of us identify love with agreement. Thus, we fear conflict and conclude that if our partner states an opposing opinion, she/he doesn't truly love us. Allowing our partner to verbalise his/her convictions without restriction creates an emotional climate that fosters intimacy. One of the requisites in creating a meaningful bond is to tune in to our mood changes and question our self rather than opting to blame and accuse our partner.

Most of us are fairly aware of our thoughts and opinions but many of us were trained out of expressing our feelings. The process by which this happens goes something like this:

Soon after the arrival of baby Toby, his older sister Indiana says she doesn't like him. Her father exclaims, "You love Toby…you're just being silly!" Another day Indiana's mother tells her to go to bed. Indiana protests that she's not yet tired, whereupon her mother insists that Indiana is tired.

Like Indiana, many children are barraged by their parents' invalidating opinions. Thus, children lose faith in their discernment of their emotions and subsequently stop vocalising them.

The graceful management of conflict involves being in touch with our emotions and being able to hold our partner's hand, metaphorically, throughout discussions that involve disagreement. If we procrastinate until we're furious before expressing our discontent we're likely to be aggressive and cause harm to our relationship. So, rather than wait until you're at fever pitch, be self-assertive in all your communication. If this form of expression is new to you, it can be useful to have a script to open discussions about your annoyance. For example, you might say, "To retain my self-respect I need to share some feelings with you." Be genuine and direct in what you say. Good communicators question themselves about what's really bugging them and they're able to express the subtlety and sensitivity of their feelings and needs. Heartfelt verbal disclosures are only one component of communication. Listening is another vital ingredient. Empathic listeners try to see the world from their partner's perspective and they cooperate with their partner to manage discord. They convey acrimonious feelings, such as anger, frustration and hurt, by taking responsibility for their feelings without condemnation, accusation or judgment of their partner.

When we communicate effectively we give our inner permission for others to disagree with our opinions, communicate their perceptions, needs and values, and we respect our partner even when our convictions clash or we don't get our own way. We have an inner stillness that facilitates open discussion because we listen to our partner's dialogue with the objective of understanding his/her feelings and needs. While we listen, we put aside our own feelings, attitudes, expectations, judgments and priorities. Thus, we aren't intent on formulating our defence and we don't feel compelled to convince our partner he/she is misinformed, deficient, ignorant or wrong. We acknowledge our partner's feelings and check that we've understood by paraphrasing what we believe are our partner's sentiments. While looking for win-win solutions, we're guided by what we think are our partner's capabilities. Thus, we don't request something we know our partner can't do, give or change, and we're flexible and mature enough to accept differences.

Let's say your partner arrives home 30 minutes late, despite his/her agreement to care for the children while you go to a karate class. Obviously if you bark at your partner as soon as he/she walks in the door your adversarial and divisive approach is likely to set the scene for a nasty argument. So, open contentious discussions gently. Take responsibility for your feelings, expectations and needs with the use of "I feel…" statements. Whereas it might be honest to tell your partner that you feel angry, it's probably not the full truth. Disclosing your deeper feelings is more authentic and self-honouring. Furthermore, if we merely tell our partner that we're angry we don't initiate the opportunity to connect meaningfully and fully. The more deeply we disclose, the greater the probability of being truly understood. Thus, you might say, "I know how responsible you are usually but I feel disrespected by your late arrival." This considerate approach involves objectively describing the behavior you're reacting to and the feelings it triggers in you. People who attack their partner's worth by demeaning her/his character are heading for Trouble. Focus on your own feelings about the issue and potential solutions rather than blaming or criticising your partner.

If you're too angry to cooperate or listen fully, admit your limitation and engage your partner in an agreement to pause for at least 30 minutes. It's best to do this before you reach boiling point! Taking a break ensures that you don't damage each other's self-esteem and/or your relationship and it may also benefit your physical health. When we're extremely angry our heart rate, stress hormone levels and blood pressure are usually elevated, so it's prudent to bring these back to normal. During the break, try to do something soothing to relieve the pain you feel over the issue and/or the argument, e.g., meditate, sit in the garden, listen to soft music, or do a relaxation exercise. Agree on a time to reconvene your discussion.

When we truly understand our partner's feelings we're likely to be motivated to meet his/her needs. If you aren't able to empathise with your partner's feelings or needs, agree to disagree. It's important that arguments reach a conclusion and that you end on a warm note. For example, you might hug or say something kind to each other. Also, remain open to renegotiating if it transpires that the agreement you reached doesn't work for one or both of you. After every argument, replay your inner conversation and revisit your expectations and assumptions. Often we blame our partner for not meeting our expectations when we merely assumed she/he would conform to our standards without prior discussion of them. If your inner conversation is very often condemning of yourself or your partner, as opposed to his/her opinion, you are on troubled turf.


In summary:
 Approach conflict management with a spirit of cooperation.
 Open the discussion gently by acknowledging an agreeable aspect of your partner, preferably something specific to the conflict.
 Accept joint responsibility for both the issue and the solution.
 Speak from your heart rather than your head (i.e., use statements starting with "I feel" to convey your feelings).
 Be descriptive rather than making judgments or attributing a motive.
 Never attack your partner's self-esteem or ascribe blame.
 Take turns in speaking, and refuse to interrupt each other.
 Listen completely – no matter what!
 Put yourself aside and make every attempt to sense your partner's feelings, thoughts and needs as she/he speaks.
 Paraphrase what your partner says to ascertain that you've understood.
 Accept what your partner cannot give, do or change.
 Yield only when your partner's disclosures touch your heart and you're motivated by empathy.
 When you reach a moderate level of anger, agree to postpone further discussion for at least 30 minutes.
 If you aren't persuaded by your partner's dialogue, accept her/his right to needs, opinions, values, expectations, priorities and behaviours that differ from your own.
 Look for a win/win solution or a creative third option.
 During (where possible) and after an argument, reflect on what you can learn about yourself from your feelings, attitudes, expectations, priorities and behaviour.
 Finish the argument with a gesture of warmth.
 Be prepared to renegotiate if a solution proves untenable.

Couples who have the perception that they will retain their goodwill, despite their differences, tend to have happier relationships than those who fear conflict. A positive outlook and a focus on developing greater understanding of each other are eminently beneficial in conflict situations. It's not differences themselves but how we handle them that determines the emotional environment of our relationships. In managing disagreements effectively, we strengthen our love.

Copyright – Elizabeth Ryan, April, 2005 – All rights reserved

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