Connecting Through Continual Conflict

We cannot move past an argument or even begin to start solving our issues until both or all sides have heard and felt heard by the other(s). It is not uncommon for us to enter into a discussion, argument, or conflict already with our feathers ruffled and ready to persuade the other party that we are right. But in reality, both perspectives and experiences are correct. Both are valid. And it is not until we recognize that this can be possible that we can begin to move forward.

I would bet that these arguments are recurring and never-ending because neither party is feeling heard. And how frustrating is it to share your side, only for it to be dismissed, ignored, or denied entirely? Before we can move forward, we must meet one another where we are.

Here are some items to consider before entering an often never-ending and recurring argument:

Ground rules and expectations

  • Clarify the purpose of the conversation at the start. Is it to persuade the other or to genuinely better understand their perspective? If it is the former, you can look forward to another very familiar conversation with likely no resolution.
  • Ensure you both are calm and actually ready to enter the conversation. If you find yourself not in a place to listen, revisit the conversation later.
  • Enter the conversation with curiosity, an open heart, and an open mind. When we do, we are able to learn so much more. We might hear pieces of the story we didn’t know happened but were important in understanding why the other person acted the way they did or said what they did.
  • Take turns speaking and listening.
  • If things ever start to escalate, naming our experience of that can help. For example, “I’m feeling pretty upset, can we take a break?” Or maybe offering statements such as “I’m feeling criticized right now, can you say that another way?” or “I’m not feeling very understood right now, here’s what I need you to know.”

Speaker

  • Whoever speaks first must approach it with kindness and report what happened in as objective of a way as possible, almost like a reporter.
  • Using I statements rather than “you did/said” statements, is always helpful. Examples might be: “I felt hurt and discouraged when you said I wasn’t good at this” or “I heard you say___” or “I saw you do___.” Also, focusing on our feelings about the situation can make a big difference.

Listener

  • The listener has responsibilities too. Record the other person’s response. They must ask open-ended questions only with the intent of clarifying the other’s experience. For instance, “what was that like for you” or “what did you mean when you said__” or “how do you define___?”
  • Avoid fixing the problem.
  • Notice and set aside any defensiveness. Whenever defensiveness enters, the conversation will likely stray from the goal (understanding the other). The listener will then share a summary of what they heard the other person say either with exact quotes they wrote down or in their own words. Then ask the speaker if they felt heard. If not, they can clarify what was not understood.
  • It is not until the speaker feels utterly heard and understood that the listener then gets to be the speaker. Both switch roles and follow the same exact rules as before.

Does this really work?

Anatol Rapoport is known for his application of mathematics, psychology, and game theory towards international conflict management and peace efforts (1). Many therapy approaches, including the Gottman Method, stem from his influential research around this very topic of conflict management. Not only that, but I have had the luxury of witnessing the effectiveness of this approach within the therapy room. With clear ground rules being set and with consistent practice, many couples overcome this seemingly impossible continual conflict.

Break the cycle

If a recurring pattern of conversation is happening, try breaking it. This approach could be just the key to having a new way of interacting and perhaps even connecting. If needed, consider having a counselor or therapist facilitate this conversation to ensure its effectiveness and the safety needed to have these kinds of conversations. We must take a step toward each other before we can move forward together.