January is called ‘Divorce Month’ by family lawyers. Being stuck in the house together over Christmas en famille can jangle the nerves of the even the most tolerant, giving rise to some serious contemplation of our relationships. Deciding that your sister has been putting you down for too many years or that your partner really is a bully you can no longer live with can trigger a call to action.
Calling out someone on their behaviours that affect your mental wellbeing can be challenging (if not downright scary). You hope the other person will want to modify and change those things that are causing you upset, but chances are, they will go on the defensive or come out fighting against what they see as an attack.
I don’t know about you, but I hate confrontation and conflict. I get a queasy feeling in my stomach, and I either can’t eat anything or I go hunting down the biscuits. I can’t settle to do anything until the matter is resolved and everybody’s friends again. The problem is that we solve one issue and breathe a sigh of relief only to be faced with another soon after. Life is full of conflict. Even the best relationships will experience disagreements which, if not handled properly, can balloon into all-out war.
Here is an interesting definition of conflict: A serious disagreement or argument, typically a protracted one: “the eternal conflict between the sexes”.
I agree with the bit about it being protracted, but it’s not limited to being between the genders. Some of the most bitter and unresolved conflicts I’ve witnessed in my forty years of training are between women, especially mothers and daughters. Conflict is certainly about disagreement. It’s also about threat (real or imagined) and it’s about fear. Fear that our needs are not going to be met or that we are going to lose something important to us.
Conflict isn’t just about a clash of expectations or misunderstood facts. It’s a complex emotional experience that attacks our sense of self – our ego. Much of it is about perception, i.e. how the other person sees the situation and how that clashes with our own. ‘I’m not wrong!’ We cry. ‘They just don’t get it!’
Conflict, wherever it occurs (but especially at work and home), cannot be dismissed as something that will pass if we ignore it. Whether it’s active aggression or the more insidious, covert, stonewalling type (i.e. passive aggression), if left unresolved it can have a significant impact on our mental, emotional and physical health.
It’s easy to feel powerless in the face of a raging storm of emotions (both ours and those of others), but there are some simple techniques we can apply to help push back the tide. Here are my suggestions:
- Plan what you want to achieve and make a few notes. Agree a date, time and place to meet in person.
- Give you and the other(s) some physical space and sit at a ninety-degree angle rather than in a face to face position. It’s less threatening.
- Breathe slowly in through your nose and out through your nose. Don’t look like you’re a dragon getting up a head of steam!
- Begin by saying, ‘I know how difficult this conversation is going to be for both of us, but I feel we’ve reached a point/it’s necessary to share our thoughts.’ Something low key and non-challenging.
- State your case calmly, simply and without exaggeration. Work hard to keep emotion out of it. If you can’t, rearrange the meeting.
- Allow the person to respond without interruption, sighing, yawning, eye rolling, scrolling on your phone. It’s vital that you give them your FULL attention if you want to avoid additional problems. Don’t ever say things like, ‘Don’t be so stupid’, or ‘Are you insane?’
- Reflect on what they’ve said. Clarify anything you didn’t understand. Take each point and discuss it further.
- Avoid the blame game; it won’t get you anywhere. Keep focused on the goal, which is a resolution and not a bar brawl.
- Ask what they would like to see happen and what they feel could be done to change things.
- Say you are sorry that the situation has reached this point, and be clear about what you want.
- Be assertive not aggressive – but don’t be walked over either.
Conflict resolution isn’t about winning or ego boosting. It’s about finding the best solution to a difficult situation through compromise. If we’re talking divorce and there are children involved then it’s not about you. It’s about them. Always.
— Angelena Boden
My Little Book of Conflict Resolution – Making Your Life Calmer, is free to download here.
Want to read more from Angelena? She writes for our sister company, Trigger Publishing, here.