Tag Archive for resolving conflict

Your Family & the Tough Conversation

Families face tough conversations in today’s world. Whether focused on politics, your teen’s level of freedom, sexuality, or which swimsuit your children can wear, these conversations can quickly become emotionally tumultuous. Hurtful words may “slip out” and relationships can be damaged. Knowing your family’s conversational style provide a first step in making these conversations more productive.

Research on conversation styles in families has identified four categories of conversation styles in families. The styles fall along two dimensions: conversational orientation and conformity. Conversational orientation represents how much and how spontaneously families talk about multiple topics. Conformity refers to how much family members feel expected to conform to the views of one or two family members. With that in mind, let’s briefly explore each style.

  1. A laissez-faire conversation style is low in both conversational orientation and conformity. They place little value on conformity and communication. They tend to have limited conversation and share few topics. Family members can differ in opinions and each person is encouraged to make their own decisions with little input from family. As you can imagine, families using this style of conversation often lack intimate, emotional  connection. They tend to be disengaged from one another. Because of the lack of support given in decision-making, children often grow to question their ability to make decisions.
  2. A protective conversation style is high in conformity but low in conversational orientation.  Communication emphasizes obedience to parental authority and conformity. Parents see little reason for explaining the reason behind decisions and simply expect the family to conform. As a result, differences of opinion are not generally discussed. Unfortunately, positive conflict resolution and communication skills are not practiced either. So, when disagreements do naturally occur, the only way to resolve them is to conform to the authority’s decision. Once again, you can see how this limits family intimacy as well as the healthy development of self-knowledge and communication skills.
  3. A pluralistic conversational style is high in conversational orientation and low in conformity. These families have open, unrestrained conversation on a wide range of topics. Parents accept children’s opinions and decisions providing they are well supported by reason and explanation.  Conflict is addressed using positive conflict-resolution strategies and generally resolved. Family conversation is valued as is independent and autonomous thinking. This style does promote competence in communication, confidence in decision-making, and conflict resolution. However, since it is low in conformity, the family tends to be permissive, which can result in more behavioral problems. Ironically, permissiveness also tends to contribute to lower self esteem in children.
  4. Finally, a consensual conversational style is high in conversational orientation and conformity. This creates a tension between the pressure to agree and so maintain the existing hierarchy on the one hand, and open communication and exploration of ideas on the other. These families strive to balance independence and conformity, expression and understanding. Parents encourage children to voice their opinions and ideas but invest energy and time in explaining their own values, beliefs, and decisions to their children. Discussions are acceptable and encouraged but volatile conflict is generally thought of negatively. As a result, the family does model and teach problem-solving and conflict resolution skills. They also develop more intimacy and connectedness.  

The question to ask yourself as you move toward having the tough conversations is: which type of conversational style describes your family? How will that conversational style impact your approach to the topic? How does your style influence your goal? Is your current style the one you want to continue using or would you like to approach this topic differently?  Do you utilize the same style in relationship to your children as you do in relationship to your spouse? Will this conversational style change as your child matures? How?

Knowledge of your family’s conversational style and the answer to these questions will begin to help you successfully engage in the tough conversations with your family.

In Marital Conflict, “What” Is In Charge

When it comes to conflict with your spouse, “what” is in charge. Not who, “what.” If left to its own devices, the “what” in charge of your marital conflict will leave no “who” in charge. Let me explain.

In many marital arguments, anger and fear represent the “what” that takes charge. Anger and fear shape our reactions and our words. When anger takes charge, it may lead us to blame our spouse or our parents or our boss…anybody but ourselves. Anger may also direct us to belittle our spouse, maybe even call our spouse a few names. When anger is the “what” in charge of conflict, the result in disaster.

Fear is “what” takes charge of marital conflict even more often than anger. Fear, in fact, is often the true commanding officer of the conflict and anger merely fear’s emissary. Fear, if it does not turn to its emissary anger, will lead us to become defensive, distant, or avoidant during the marital conflict.

When anger or fear take charge of a conflict, there is no “who” in charge. Anger and fear have formed a coup and taken charge…and the results are disastrous: blaming, defending, belittling, feeling rejected, emotional distance, more anger, and more fear. The hurt caused by anger and fear puts us on guard, ever vigilant for the next slight, the next provocation. There is no security and no winner when anger and fear are the “what” in charge of your marital disagreement.

None of us want fear and anger to run our martial conflict. So, “what” do we want to take charge of our marital conflicts? Empathy. Empathy commands us to listen and intentionally work to understand. Empathy directs us to seek connection and intimacy above “winning” or “being right.” Empathy calms the fear and resolves the anger. “What”—anger, fear, or empathy—may take charge of your marital conflict, but “WHO” determines which “what” will take charge. “Who” will make that decision? You. Only you can choose how you will engage in the conflict. Only you can choose which “what” will take charge of the marital conflict—anger, fear, or empathy. You, only you, can choose your response. Be the “who” that takes charge of the “what” that shapes your response during marital conflict.

Step back. Take a breath. Choose “empathy” as the “what” to direct your conflict. You will be so glad you did. And do you know “who” else will be glad? Your spouse.

What Your Family Needs Now…

What the world, and your family needs now is NOT love, sweet love. No. your family needs a specific type of response from you, especially during these uncertain times. Sure, this response falls under the category of “loving action,” but many (including me) have missed the mark at times. A study published in the Journal of Communication revealed how we can hit the mark, and even the bull’s eye, more often. In this study, the authors recruited 478 married adults who had recently experienced an argument with their spouse. They offered these adults one of six types of supportive while talking to them about their disagreement. These six responses types ranged from low to moderate to high in “person-centeredness.”

Low “person-centered” responses were critical and challenged the person’s feelings… statements like, “Nobody is worth getting so upset about. Stop being so depressed.” Or “I don’t know why you’re so upset. You do the same thing.” 

High “person-centered” responses recognized the person’s feelings and may have even invited them to discuss or explore those feelings… statements like, “Disagreeing with someone you care about is hard. It makes sense you’re upset.” 

Which response elicited the best results? Well, not the low “person-centered” responses. These responses created resistance and anger in the person. They did not help the person manage their emotions or resolve their marital disagreement. In fact, they often led to the person feeling criticized and experiencing more negative emotions.

The high “person-centered” responses led to greater emotional management. The person felt validated and free to discuss their thoughts and feelings. This contributed to a move to resolution. In other words, high “person-centered” responses proved more effective in helping a person resolve marital conflict.

In our families, arguments and disagreements will arise. How you respond to those disagreements can lead to feelings of resistance and anger or to feelings of validation and acceptance. Your response can contribute to escalating disagreement or quicker resolution. The more “person-centered” your response, the more acceptance and validation your family member will feel…and the more quickly you will reach resolution. What would high “person-centered” responses look like?

  • High “person-centered” responses involve listening intently to understand even before speaking.
  • High “person-centered” responses express acceptance. They seek to recognize and validate the emotions and feelings of the other person, your spouse.
  • High “person-centered” responses recognize, respect, and accept your spouse’s experience, even if it seems different than your own.
  • High “person-centered” responses express sympathy, care, and concern for your spouse…even if you do disagree. It communicates that your relationship is more important than your disagreement.

Next time you find yourself in an argument with a family member, do an experiment. Focus on giving high “person-centered” responses. Listen to understand. Communicate acceptance and respect. Validate their emotions and their experience. Express care and concern. See if the resolution comes more quickly, if the intimacy feels more secure, and if you and your family member are more content with the process. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Speaking the Truth in Love

Building a healthy family requires some tough conversations—tough conversations with our spouse, tough conversations with our children, and even tough conversations with our parents. These conversations often put us in a moral bind between the desire to be honest and the desire to be kind. Of course, we can approach these tough conversations in a variety of ways. Emma Levine, a University of Chicago psychologist, describes five ways to approach these tough conversations.

  1. We could just fail to address the issue. This approach is low on honesty and, in the long run, kindness. We avoid the discomfort of bringing up unpleasant material. But our family member does not learn valuable information. And, we miss the opportunity to nurture a more intimate relationship through the conversation.
  2. We might tell a “little white lie,” a false kindness to protect our family member’s feelings. Once again, we avoid the unpleasant confrontation, but our family member misses out on learning important information. Intimacy is hindered. And, if the “white lie” is discovered, our family member may even become resentful.
  3. We could simply speak with brutal honesty. In this scenario, we speak the truth but do not take our family member’s feelings into consideration.  Our family member will likely feel criticized or attacked  and, as a result, reject the message. Once again, family members do not gain important information. Intimacy is hindered. Relationships are harmed.
  4. The fourth approach involves telling your family member something true and positive but irrelevant to the “real” issue. For instance, your son asks about his performance during the baseball game and you reply by saying, “It was a beautiful sunny day to watch your game” rather than offering a direct, but loving critique of his performance. Unfortunately, your family member will likely view this as no different than telling an outright lie. They will become frustrated. Intimacy will be hindered. Relationships harmed.

Why do we use these ineffective approaches? Dr. Levine believes we choose one of these ineffective approaches because we focus mainly on our own feelings during the anticipated interaction and we focus on short-term comfort rather than long-term kindness. All this aside, Dr. Levine does describe one more approach… and this one proves most effective. It shifts the focus to the long-term growth and increased intimacy we might gain rather than the short-term comfort. .

  • Articulate a sincere interest in your family member’s long-term benefit before describing your concern in a gentle, straight-forward manner. Remember, the conversation will end like it begins so approach the interaction gently, with a “gentle start up.” Even if you fumble over some words, your family member will sense your attempt. They will experience the warmth of emotion expressed and recognize your genuine concern. As a result, they will be more able to hear the concern…even if it is unpleasant in the moment. In other words, speak the truth in love. When we do, family members gain important information. Everyone grows. Intimacy is enhanced.

To speak the truth in love is an ancient wisdom that helps us grow more mature, more intimate, and more secure.

A Card Game to Change the “Same Old Fights”

I love this quote: “What makes conflict so painful is that we are desperate to be heard but too upset to listen, desperate to be understood but too upset to be understanding, desperate to be validated but too upset to validate. What can help you get what you need is [a] willingness to stoke even a small ember of empathy for your partner’s experience.” (Dr. Alexandra Solomon)

An incredibly wise statement. Arguments are not resolved without listening, understanding, and validating. Unfortunately, the heat of a conflict sends us into a fight or flight mode, making it extremely difficult to listen, understand, and validate. So, what can you do? Here is a neat little “card game” that can help you become less “desperate” and more able to listen, understand, and validate. It demands some prep time, but the results can be wonderful.

Preparation:

  • Think of the tone of voice that escalates your conflicts. Then, write down the tone of voice that will help prevent an escalation. This may include calm (vs. agitated), gentle (vs. harsh), soft (vs. loud), sincere (vs. sarcastic), and any others you think of. Make one note card for each positive tone of voice.
  • Think of the words and phrases that escalate your arguments. Now, write down words and catchphrases to help calm an escalation. These might include repair statements John Gottman talks about. They can also include phrases that affirm your love for one another, phrases like “Even when I’m upset, I still love you” or “We can disagree and still love one another.”
  • After you have made these cards, put them around your house—on the fridge, on the mirror in the bathroom, on your dresser drawer…where ever you will see them throughout the day and where ever they will be readily available to you in the “heat of the moment.”

Playing the Game:

  • Now that the cards are spread throughout your house, make a point of reading them as you go about your day. Say them out loud when open the fridge, look in the mirror, or any time you see a card.
  • If (when is probably more accurate) you find yourself in an argument with your spouse, recite one of the cards. If you struggle to remember what any of them say, walk as you talk and read the cards along the way. Walking and looking for the right card as you talk may change your argument in and of itself…may even make you laugh a little.
  • Also, as you read the new statements and follow the new tone of voice directions, you will be changing your style of argument for good.

You may even find yourself better able to listen, understand, and validate. Better yet, doing all this will turn the argument into an opportunity to learn about one another and grow more intimate. Now that’s the way to win a great card game!

Conflict With Your Spouse? Try the Elmo Approach.

Remember Elmo from Sesame Street? Elmo talks in third person most of the time. The Sesame Street Workshop Frequently Asked Questions tells us Elmo talks in third person because of his preschool age. In fact, many preschoolers do speak in third person. Elmo simply says he “was born that way.” Whatever his reason for talking in third person, he may be on to something that could benefit you, your marriage, and your family.

Teresa Frisbie, a professional mediator and director of Loyola University Chicago School of Law’s Dispute Resolution Program, helps clarify what Elmo can teach us. She notes we often react to stressors, disagreements, or perceived threats with a fight, flight, or freeze response. John Gottman also states that marital arguments trigger this fight, flight, or freeze response. During this response, we become defensive and self-protective. We are less able to listen well or understand another person’s perspective. As you can imagine, that is not good for resolving the argument with your spouse. In fact, it only makes the conflict worse. But what can we do? Which leads us back to Teresa Frisbie.

Teresa Frisbie suggests we try what I call the Elmo Approach. She suggests we begin to use a third person perspective, just like Elmo does. Simply shifting our perspective from the first-person (I, me, mine) to third person (Elmo says…) helps us gain distance from the perceived stresses and perceived threat so we can remain calm and gain some clarity. The third person perspective helps us maintain a healthy optimism as well, which helps resolve disagreements. The Elmo Approach can also help us listen better and appreciate multiple perspectives. It will help us resolve the disagreement more easily.

You may be thinking, “Elmo can talk in third person, but I’ll look crazy talking in third-person during an argument.” Well…. Here’s the beauty of this? You don’t have to say it out loud. You can simply begin referring to yourself in third person in your mind. Beginning to use the third person in your thoughts can produce the same results. So, give the Elmo Approach a try. If you find yourself stressed or overwhelmed, start referring to yourself in third person (by using your name or referring to yourself as he, she, him, or her) as you contemplate your response. Whether you find yourself giggling like Elmo or not, you will find it easier to maintain some distance from the stressor and resolve the conflict more easily.

Read more about this in How to Get Some Emotional Distance in an Argument from The Greater Good Science Center.

“Yeah, but…,” “Yes, and…”, “Your Marriage”

I like to do an exercise with families and couples struggling to communicate effectively. The exercise involves three parts and is taken from an improvisation exercise. In the first part of the exercise, the couple attempts to have a conversation by replying to everything their partner says with some form of “No.” Variations on “no” can include, “That’s wrong,” “Never,” “How stupid,” “How can you do that to me?” or a simple roll of the eyes. As you can imagine, this conversation is very short in the office, but they can go on for days in the home. A “no” response blocks connection. It tends to either end the conversation or lead to an angry response that escalates into a cycle of blaming and defending.  As you can imagine, done consistently this type of response will kill a relationship.

The second part of the exercise changes the response from “no” to “Yeah, but….”  You can imagine the simple conversations that follow. “It’s sunny outside.” “Yeah, but it’s hot.” “Yeah, but we can swim.” “Yeah, but the water is probably cold.” “Yeah, but….” Is it getting irritating yet?  Yeah, but it can go on in some relationships forever. In life outside my office, “yeah, but” responses may not even include those words. They may sound more like “You did it (yeah)…(but) finally” or “That’s not a bad job (yeah with the implied ‘but it could be better’)” or “That is good work (yeah)…(but) for you.” The “yeah, but…” conversation blocks connection as well. It quickly becomes frustrating and may even escalate to arguing. It will also kill a relationship.

The final part of the exercise changes the initial response one more time. This time, all responses start with “Yes, and….” “It’s sunny today.” “Yes, and it’s hot.” Yes, and we can swim.” “Yes, and the water is probably cold.” “Yes, and that will feel good!” Not near as frustrating. The “Yes, and” conversation accepts the other person’s statement and adds to it. It builds connection through acceptance. It builds cooperation. It opens the door for a deeper and more intimate conversation.

As you finish reading this description, take a moment to reflect. Step away from the “Yeah, but that will never work in my marriage” and the “Yeah, but you don’t know my spouse.”  Pause and consider the “Yes, and I’ll give it a try” or “Yes, and I’ll find out if it works in my marriage.” You might be pleasantly surprised.

3 Elements of a Healthy Marriage

Healthy marriages face challenges. Any time two different people from two different backgrounds with two unique sets of values and communication nuances work to become one unit (a marriage), you are bond to have some conflict. Fortunately, challenges and conflict do not cancel out a healthy marriage. In fact, challenges and conflict present wonderful opportunities to grow more intimate as a couple…as long as the couple handles them with grace. How can couples handle challenges and conflicts with the grace that brings intimacy? Here are 3 suggestions.

  • Embrace the Conflict. Conflict happens. You might as well accept it. In fact, turn toward the conflict. Recognize the moment of conflict as an opportunity to learn about your spouse. Listen carefully to their point of view and you will discover amazing things about your spouse. You will discover that wrapped inside the conflict and your spouse’s emotions is a treasure chest overflowing with information about their values, fears, hopes, and dreams. 
  • Accept the 69. Gottman found that couples who returned to his “love lab” as part of ongoing research would often have the same disagreements they had even five years ago. In fact, his research revealed that about two thirds of all conflicts are unsolvable. They represent differences of personality and style. You could address them with anger and impatience…but that will not change anything. It will not strengthen your relationship. And, the conflict will remain. So, what can you do? Healthy couples do not avoid the conflict or disagreement. They learn to manage them differently, with honor and grace. For instance, they learn to use humor and repair statements during their disagreements forge strong marriages. They also believe and practice point number 3 below.
  • You Need Two Honest Voices to Forge a Strong Marriage. That means couples need to talk about hard feelings, frustrations, and conflicts as well as the celebrations and joys. (Because it ruins a marriage to Shut Up and Put Up.) No matter the content of the conversation, we must remain respectful and kind, even when we might disagree. We must listen, especially when we disagree. When handled with care and love, healthy relationships can handle two opinions. When both people remain open, both people feel accepted. When both people listen, both people feel heard. In the process, both people learn and grow more intimate with one another. Their love grows as they resolve their solvable disagreements  and as they learn to accept their unsolvable conflicts with grace and love.

Yes. Healthy marriages face challenges. Healthy marriages embrace those challenges because you need two honest voices to forge a strong marriage.

How Happy Couples Fight

Couples have disagreements. They argue. They get angry at one another. But many couples remain happily together in spite of this. How do they do it? How can a happy couple still have marital problems? That’s the question that a group of researchers (Rauer, Sabey, Proulx, & Volling) set out to answer. To answer the question, they looked at two groups of heterosexual married couples. One group was in their mid-to-late thirties and had been married an average of nine years. The other group was in their early seventies and had been married an average of 42 years. Researchers observed the couples discussing marital problems. This is what they discovered.

  1. Happy couples focused on issues with clear solutions first. This involved issues like distribution of household chores or how to spend their free time. The solutions to these problems were more concrete, measurable so to speak. Focusing on more solvable problems built up both partners’ sense of security in the relationship. It strengthened the sense of “we” in the relationship as they worked to successfully solve these “issues.” It helped to enhance intimacy.
  2. Happy couples rarely focused on those problems that involved more difficult solutions. They focused less on those perpetual problems. Perhaps more difficult-to-solve problems threatened each partners’ confidence in the relationship. By focusing on the more solvable problems, they built a solid base of security that allowed for the greater possibility of solving some of the more difficult problems through willing sacrifice and difficult compromise as well.
  3. Couples married longer reported fewer serious issues. They also reported arguing less overall. This, in combination with other research, suggests that happy couples learn to prioritize their marriage. Over time, they come to realize that some issues just aren’t worth the argument. They learn to choose their battles wisely.

So, how do happy couples fight? In the words of the Grail Knight in Indiana Jones, they “choose wisely.” They choose to focus first on those solvable problems in their marriage. Doing so builds a foundation of trust, a strong sense of security. It is a practical way of prioritizing the “we” of their marriage above the individual. This foundation allows them to solve some problems that remain more difficult to resolve. As they do this, they learn to prioritize their marriage above individual wants and desires, even those desires one partner may believe to be a need. Ironically, they even learn that some of those “difficult-to-solve” problems really aren’t as essential as they use to believe. They just aren’t worth the argument. The relationship is more important. And rather than watching their marriage decay in the pain of bad decisions (like the man who drank from the wrong cup in Indiana Jones), they focus on gaining the intimacy, wisdom, and joy of a happy marriage. They “choose wisely.”

After the Fight: Cold War or Intimate Harmony

Every family has conflict. It’s inevitable. Couples are going to disagree and argue. Siblings are going to clash, compete, and struggle with one another. Parental wisdom and desires are going to collide with their children’s push for independence. These skirmishes can create a cold war within the family; or, they can promote an intimate harmony within the family. What makes the difference?

Researchers from the University of Texas at Dallas asked the same question. To find an answer, they recruited 226 cohabiting couples to keep an online diary of their conflicts for two weeks. They also gave them a checklist of behaviors to indicate how they resolved their conflicts. The checklist had 18 possible post-conflict behaviors that fell into one of four categories. (The 18 post-conflict behaviors and the four related categories were determined from a previous study by the same group of researchers.) At the end of the two-week period, each couple came to the lab where they engaged in “discussions” centered on two of their conflict issues, one chosen by each partner. The researchers observed each couple’s arguments first-hand in this setting. They discovered that a cold war or a more intimate family resulted not from the argument itself, but from which of the four categories of behaviors their post-conflict actions fell into.

  1. Avoidance, one of the four categories of post-conflict behavior, was more likely to result in a cold war. Such practices might include “pretending” like everything is fine even though no resolution was reached, not talking about it, or just ignoring the issue. As you can imagine, avoiding the issue does not make it go away. It only makes it worse. At best, a cold war can ensue. At worst, Shut Up and Put Up can Ruin Your Marriage.
  2. Letting go, another strategy couples use following a conflict, had in mixed results.  Letting go can work wonders for small issues like whether the toilet paper goes over the top or the bottom (top, of course) or whether the toothpaste is squeezed from the middle or bottom (bottom, obviously). But letting go can prove much less effective in larger issues…and, in such cases can lead to a cold war. Gottman suggests that 69% of marital issues are “perpetual problems.” They are unsolvable. They may be the result of differences in personality (extraverted vs. introverted, for example) or lifestyle (desire to travel, level of  house clutter tolerated, etc.). When it comes to “perpetual problems,” we need to accept the ways in which our spouse is different than us. At the same time, these issues don’t go away. Couples will continually return to them in their disagreements and arguments. To keep them from destroying the relationship, couples must learn to approach the conflict of “perpetual problems” with gentleness, personal responsibility, and humor. They must learn to build an overall environment of gratitude and appreciation into their home. Letting go, in and of itself, is incomplete and not effective in the bigger, more perpetual problems.
  3. Gaining new perspective, another post-conflict behavior, sounds like a great option. We are often encouraged to take our spouse’s perspective. Taking perspective can help us gain understanding and build a willingness to compromise…maybe. But if the compromise is one-sided or given begrudgingly, it can lay a root of bitterness, lingering ill-feelings, or even anger at the lack of perceived reciprocation. The result? A potential cold war. So, quit taking your spouse’s perspective and become more like a fly on the wall instead.
  4. Active repair, the final category of post-conflict behaviors, stood out above all the others in effectively promoting an intimate harmony and happiness. Active repair builds harmony through intentional listening, expressions of affection, and learning to give it up to lift up your marriage.

Conflict, disagreement, arguments…they can lead to a cold war or they can promote a more intimate harmony. It all depends on what you do after the conflict. What will you do? Avoid? Let it go? Gain new perspective? Work toward actively repairing the relationship? The choice is clear. Actively repair will promote more intimate harmony…and that is well worth the effort.

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