Who hasn’t had conflicts? If you genuinely haven’t ever, I would definitely like to meet you!

The harmless, fighting for a toy as a kid to serious conflicts in personal and professional lives as we grow older. Conflicts are inevitable and normal! Just like most adults, I have had my share of conflicts. Professional and personal. In both scenarios, there have been some healthy resolutions and some toxic endings.

While staying at home and having a lot of time on hand and on my mind during the current COVID-19 quarantine, I somehow started thinking about conflicts and resolutions. More than the blame, the ego and the anger. I have had conflicts with mere acquaintances and even with people I would lay down my life for. Why did some of them turn out well and why did some of them lead to the end of a relationship? Why did some bosses become my inspiration on “what to be” and some on “what not to be”?! And as one of my earlier post says, I have a hard time forgiving or forgetting, so the only way for me to ever move forward is to either work on what went wrong, which would need both parties to be open to it, or just severe all ties and walk away.

It’s normal to have conflicts in relationships. People are different, and their desires and needs will inevitably clash. Resolving disagreements in a healthy way creates understanding and brings people closer together. The objective should be the betterment of the relationship. This is positive conflict.  It is not only important to resolve the conflict, but also is equally important to ensure that the parties involved in conflict do not unnecessarily end up being in any kind of emotional stress during the resolution process of the conflict. Striking a balance between resolving the conflict to find the decision and maintaining the emotional well-being of people involved will be critical to successful conflict management.

As conflicts can be detrimental to our performance, growth and mental health whether it is part of our personal or professional lives, I am going to address both of them. Starting with personal life in this post, only because for the next few months, those are the relationships we can and will have to work on!

Personal Pow Wows

Do you sometimes think you’ve worked through a conflict with your partner/friend/family member (I am going to use partner, just for the ease), only to have it come up again and again? Are there times when you believe you’ve settled a disagreement, yet continue to experience negative emotional residue from it?

Arguments aren’t necessarily a bad sign. It means differences are surfacing, but in some relationships, differences aren’t acknowledged, because either one partner dominates another, or because one or both individuals are sacrificing who they are to please one another. These solutions to differences usually backfire, because they build resentment and passive-aggressive behavior. With these couples, conflict is a sign of growth and maturity. At the other extreme are high-conflict couples, where differences escalate into power struggles and communication becomes aggressive.

What are some of the reasons that conflicts get bad enough for you to actively work on resolution. Not that it’s wrong. Please always put an effort in resolving them!

  1. Low self-esteem: Sometimes one of the partner due to low self esteem takes things personally, acts over defensive, is unable to express their needs and wants, refuses to take responsibility for their behaviour, is dishonest or resorts to people pleasing.
  2. Pride/Ego/Battle: It’s not about winning or losing! The objective should be to resolve a dispute to the satisfaction of both of you. This approach ends in a stalemate with each person feeling as though the other doesn’t understand them. At worst, the relationship is injured and resentment builds.
  3. Avoidance: The assumption behind this approach is that talking about the problem will cause an argument. So, it’s better to let time pass and hopefully it will cease to be an issue. Unfortunately, the emotion associated with unresolved conflicts tend to accrue over time and this only sets you up for more explosive conflict later on.
  4. Subtle hints: Hints are usually wrapped in humor or sarcasm as a way to let your partner know that you are unhappy, angry or wanting something from them – like an apology. Unfortunately, this indirect way of dealing with conflict usually heightens negative feelings because it inevitably leads to lots of miscommunication and misinterpretation of motives.

Now, before I go forward with how we can resolve them, I would like to split personal relationships into healthy and unhealthy ones. Sometimes, unfortunately some relationships are just not meant to be. Usually because of the people involved, their history, the place they are coming from, their underlying struggles and their aspirations and needs from this relationship. All I would like to say about unhealthy relationships is that while conflict is normal, your arguments shouldn’t turn into personal attacks and neither partner should try to lower the other’s self-esteem. If you can’t express yourself without fear of retaliation, you may be experiencing abuse. And you would need a lot more than conflict resolution techniques.

With healthy relationships, communication is the key. When you communicate effectively, you understand your partner better and make your relationship stronger. When you can resolve conflicts successfully, you are developing a healthy, mature relationship.

  1. Take responsibility for your part: Our first inclination is to blame the other person. But, what might you be doing that is hindering efforts to resolve the issue? For example, are you insistent on getting your way? Are you raising your voice, talking down to your partner or shaming them in order to assume a one-up position in the disagreement? Chances are good that if you are not making progress, you are making some contribution to the failed efforts to resolve the problem. Be willing to take responsibility for what you are doing, admit it, apologize and move toward a resolution. When both partners are willing to do this, it can change the whole tone and direction of the conversation.
  2. Put your views aside temporarily: Virtually any dead-end conflict can be dramatically turned around if one partner is willing to unselfishly put their views off to the side temporarily and listen carefully to the concerns. When an honest and sincere attempt is made to carefully listen and take your partner seriously, it has the ability to disarm the defensive posture often taken in conflict. The idea then is for the other to eventually reciprocate the same attentiveness while their partner explains their position.
  3. Emotional resolve: The most important part of conflict resolution is not the logistical outcome but the emotional resolve. It is the emotional resolve that enables the relationship to move forward, feel close and be secure.
  4. Agree to disagree:  If you and your partner can’t resolve an issue, sometimes it’s best to drop it. You can’t agree on everything. Focus on what matters. If the issue is too important for you to drop and you can’t agree to disagree, then maybe you’re not really compatible.
  5. Set Boundaries: Everyone deserves to be treated with respect — even during an argument. If your partner curses at you, calls you names or ridicules you, tell them to stop. If they don’t, walk away and tell them that you don’t want to continue arguing right now.
  6. Find the Real Issue: Typically, arguments happen when one partner’s wants are not being met. Try to get to the heart of the matter. If your partner seems needy, maybe they are just feeling insecure and need your encouragement. Learn to talk about the real issue so you can avoid constant fighting.
  7. Compromise When Possible: Easy to say but hard to do, compromising is a major part of conflict resolution and any successful relationship. Find a middle ground that can allow both of you to feel satisfied with the outcome.
  8. Consider Everything: Is this issue really important? Does it change how the two of you feel about each other? Are you compromising your beliefs or morals? If yes, it’s important that you really stress your position. If not, maybe this is a time for compromise. Also, consider your partner’s arguments. Why are they upset? What does the issue look like from their point of view? It is unusual for your partner to get this upset? Does your partner usually compromise? Are you being inconsiderate?
  9. Practice acceptance: All our partners do things, or have habits, that annoy us, because no human being is perfect. Instead of dwelling on their negative traits or bad habits, focus instead on what they bring to the table, how they make you feel and the qualities that you love. You’ll find that you’ll soon start to miss even the things that used to drive you crazy, because they are part of that whole person, your partner, whom you adore.
  10. Time limit: Have time-limited discussions and stick to the pre-set time. A half-hour is plenty. You can always reconvene.
  11. Don’t procrastinate: Work through things as they come up. Don’t stockpile resentments; otherwise, each postponement becomes a block to the next communication.
  12. It’s “We” not “Me”: Use a “we” approach. “We have a problem,” not “My problem with you is . . .”
  13. Work on forgiveness: If you’re wondering how to save your relationship because your trust was broken, you’re probably feeling angry, bitter, hurt, mistrustful and a whole host of other negative emotions. If you’re the person who broke the trust, you’re feeling guilty and ashamed. You may even try to blame your partner or justify your actions. In this situation, both partners need to work on forgiveness. You won’t just wake up one day and magically feel forgiving toward your partner. Forgiveness is a process. It’s a series of small acts – admitting mistakes, practicing total honesty and putting your partner first – that add up over time. Forgiveness takes work.

What you shouldn’t do

  1. Don’t have controversial discussions when you’re tired.
  2. Don’t make accusations or use the words, “always” or “never.”
  3. Don’t bring in allies – other people’s opinions – or make comparisons to others.
  4. Don’t switch topics, or retaliate with, “but you did . . .”
  5. Don’t judge, blame, belittle, or be sarcastic or dismissive in words or facial expressions, such as rolling your eyes or smirking.
  6. Don’t expect your partner to read your mind.
  7. Don’t analyze your partner or impute motives or feelings to him or her.
  8. Don’t interrupt or monopolize the conversation.
  9. Don’t react or defend yourself. Instead communicate your point of view.
  10. Don’t bring up the past – anything more than a few days old. (Unless it is a really old conflict you are trying to resolve)
  11. Don’t rolodex grievances. Stick to the current one. You don’t need more “evidence” that you’re right and your partner is wrong.
  12. Don’t compromise your bottom lines in the relationship, if they’re non-negotiable. It will lead to more conflict later.

Ok. That is just a lot of stuff to think and work on. And rightly so. Relationships aren’t easy. Specially the good ones. If you think finding the people who genuinely love and care for you is hard let me tell you, making that relationship and sticking together is harder. All that I have mentioned here aren’t just my thoughts. A lot of it from reputed wellness, relationship management and expert advice.

Now, I will come to a technique I use extensively. Recommended by my therapist years ago, I have usually used this when I had to sort through a conflict, given the person on the other end was open and ready to reciprocate. And most times, it has worked out well for me, even if the relationship didn’t do well, I knew I did all that I could have.

I call it my “Hurt locker”. Sorry for being so unimaginative.

The inability to resolve conflicts when what’s really “in conflict” is never clearly identified. I’ll focus on matters that seem to get resolved, at least superficially, only to get recycled later, and on issues that can’t be resolved until both discuss, with compassion and respect. This is because hurt feelings from their shared past that are closely connected to their current issues. Ultimately, these two points are the same—what needs to be rectified aren’t differences in viewpoint, but that the neither party has experienced the other as understanding, or empathizing with. So what happens with my “hurt locker”? Honestly, it takes a lot or resilience and absence of ego to go through this process because this is the end of it all. The relationship has reached it’s last chance, and only if both are genuinely ready to resolve it, there is a chance of it working out.

  1. Make a list of memories that relate to hurt and disappointment. These are memories, that when I think of become real again. The anger, the pain and all other such negative feelings come rushing back, despite having made efforts to minimize and move away from it. The reason they resurface is that you and your partner have never adequately attended to them. It almost always underlies feelings of irritation, anger, rage and it’s embedded in a whole host of other emotions. So consider whether the feelings attached to each of your memories links to your feelings of being: 
  • disregarded or dismissed
  • guilty or falsely accused
  • victimized or ridiculed
  • unimportant or useless
  • devalued or worthless
  • weak or powerless
  • humiliated or shamed
  • spurned or rejected
  • unloved or unlovable

 If the feeling is authentic, its validity hardly warrants questioning, regardless of what the other person’s conscious intentions may have been. Just as it makes little sense to try to talk someone out of their feelings, it’s equally unproductive to dispute the other person’s motives. So during this process, it’s imperative that neither party debate what the other person actually felt or thought. While you compose this list, keep it to yourself. It makes little sense to disclose the contents in your Hurt Locker beforehand, especially because doing so might overload your partner.

2. Limit yourself to one hurt at a time. Take turns describing a situation that upset you. Talk about what was said, how it affected you and how can work around it in the future.

3. Devote whole heartedly to imagine the distress both your words and actions have caused to each other. Now, it’s all about empathy. Intentional or not you have hurt your partner. It’s not fair to evaluate their emotions as overblown or think that they’re too sensitive. Your one obligation is to put yourself in their shoes and endeavor to feel whatever you prompted them to feel. In your role as sympathetic listener, you’re not to defend yourself, counter-criticize them, or in any way judge them for their reaction.

4. Regardless of how misunderstood by them you yourself may now feel, you still need to honor their experience. Again, this is not the time to explain or justify yourself or, for that matter, to interrupt them to proclaim your counter-hurts. Although the route to effectively resolving your conflict doesn’t and shouldn’t require you to agree with your partner’s reality, you should understand it and be sympathetic toward it.

5. Apologize. Not from your head, but from your heart. The goal is to demonstrate that you’re truly sorry for causing them pain. Granted, if you have a good amount of stored-up, negative emotional residue yourself, this can be extremely challenging. But remember that you’ll have an opportunity to get past hurts off your chest (or heart) when it’s your turn. This mutual exchange of compassion and sympathetic understanding is the best way for you to move forward.

6. Try and understand if both of you can fully appreciate why the other was hurt or angered. If you can move past it and build a relationship further. If you would be able to trust each other again.

Conflict is rarely easy and never fun, but it can be used effectively to strengthen a  relationship if approached with a willingness to own your part, listen effectively to your partner and work out the underlying emotions that may still be lingering. Both of you have to believe it’s worth the effort and time.

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