In relationships, conflict is a given. As much as we would like to pretend it isn’t so, there is no way around this truth. For many of us the unconscious question we are always asking ourselves is, “How do I avoid conflict?”. Yet poorly managed conflict (or even worse, avoided conflict) will rapidly disintegrate a relationship over time.
For a relationship to thrive there is a better question we need to ask, “How can I do conflict well?“ In this article I will share with you some of the ways I have learned to do conflict well.
Having a common goal
As we all know, prevention is better than cure. Having a common goal that both parties understand is one of the best ways to prevent huge difficult-to-resolve conflicts. This is because when we understand what we are striving for everything we do revolves around this agreement.
For example, I often send my clients away to work on their common goal by answering questions like these together:
Taking personal responsibility
It is absolutely essential for a healthy relationship that each party understands that the only thing they are responsible for is their own behaviour (the exception for this being domestic violence or abuse). Likewise the only thing we can contemplate, improve and change is ourselves. It is fruitless to spend your life complaining about and trying to change others.
A tactic for conflict that I love is from Jordan Petersons book, 12 Rules for Life, The Antidote to Chaos. He says that he and his wife manage conflict by moving away from one another for a period of twenty minutes to contemplate what they each individually could have done differently. Note that means you are contemplating only what YOU could have done different, not what your partner could have done. I challenge you to try this for just one week and see how your relationship flourishes and grows.
Hearing the music
Remember that terrifying and escalating music in the movie Jaws? How as it played the tension went up and up and up? A friend of mine uses the Jaws music as a great analogy: that you have to learn to hear it right at the start, before the tension gets too high. Often we are in a conflict and deep down we know exactly where it is going to end up, but we don’t stop to listen to the music. If we paid attention we would hear the music loud and clear and we would recognise that we are headed nowhere good.
With this analogy we train ourselves to hear the music and get out of the water. My friend recommends using a phrase or word that you say to one another before the argument escalates out of control. That word may signal that it is time to self-regulate or spend a little while apart before coming back to discuss.
The nervous system in conflict
Conflict results in immediate sympathetic nervous system (or SNS) stimulation, otherwise known as the fight or flight response or the stress response. In fact there are three parts to this: fight (we may argue, yell, get angry or threaten), flight (withdraw and run away) or freeze (shut down, become immobile).
When we feel threatened by a conflict we tend to default to one of these three choices. Likewise, we all have a history of how loved ones have responded to us in the past when they feel threatened. Both of these affect the way we engage (or try not to engage) in conflict now.
For example when I was a child I experienced aggression from the close men in my life. I learned to cope by withdrawing (which is a flight response). On the other hand my husband has a history of experiencing female withdrawal (flight). The close women in his life tended to retreat away from him which usually felt like rejection.
As conflict begins between us this creates a complex dynamic. If I perceive aggression from him (which happens easily due to my past experiences) I will respond by withdrawing. As he perceives withdrawal and rejection from me (which happens easily due to his past experiences) he responds by moving in closer, which I then perceive as more aggression. Can you see how an unhelpful cycle begins here?
By understanding one another’s history and SNS responses we can put into place a plan of action for when conflict arises. In our case, we created a plan where I ask my husband for ten minutes away from him so that I can regulate and soothe myself. I am in a flight or fight response and I need to calm myself down. My husband knows that he must agree and I know that I must keep my word to return in no more than ten minutes. This way he will feel safe too.
The opposite of your SNS or stress response is your PNS (or parasympathetic nervous system) which can also be called the relaxation response. You can stimulate this through deep breathing, consciously relaxing your muscles or using mindfulness of the body or breath. When I leave the room I am doing something really important: I am soothing my own nervous system. I use a series of learned tools to exit my flight/fight/freeze responses and come into relaxation.
Sometimes we need to physically release the energy of an SNS response. Ways to do this are by running, stomping, dancing, punching or throwing pillows, sighing loudly, singing, dancing, laying under a blanket or having a damn good cry. These actions work the best when you can completely avoid any stories that may be going through your head. Just move for the sake of moving, to release energy and feel your body.
It is important to note that during a stress response we can’t think critically. We are honed in on survival or protection. It is only once we are calmed down and relaxed that we can breathe deeply and think widely. Conflict is resolved much more peacefully when we are not supercharged and triggered. It is a great skill to learn to come back to the discussion once relaxed and with your common goal in mind.
Did you know that every single quality you see in another is what you already hold in your own consciousness? In other words what you experience with them are simply parts of yourself reflected back to you. The qualities that you most admire in people are ones that you already possess. Isn’t that beautiful?
Though you may not like it (or want to believe it) the same goes for those qualities that you dislike. If you can see this clearly then your relationships become an opportunity to see yourself honestly and to grow. As we learn to see everyone as a mirror we can gain a fundamental and life changing truth: if you want to improve your relationships you need to be the change you want to see.
My clients experience
As a therapist I frequently have clients come to me and talk about their partners. They may say something like, “He or she is just not listening to me. I don’t feel heard or respected. It’s like they don’t understand me and have no time to hear what I have to say”.
In response I would ask them, “What specifically do you see in their behaviour?”. And they might say, “Well they shout at me a lot, and they keep saying the same things over and over again”.
I can see clearly what they can not: that the other person also feels unheard, otherwise why would they be shouting and repeating themselves? The two are mirroring each others experience and they are seeing themselves (and their own actions and qualities) in each other.
So, how do we wake up to what we are seeing? How do we take responsibility for our own actions and qualities and realise that the other is simply showing us what we need to know about ourselves?
To help my clients do this I ask a series of powerful questions. First, “What would you like them to do to help you feel seen and heard?” Or, “What can they do to solve this situation?” They will usually tell me something like, “I would like them to stop what they are doing when I come home and listen to me. I would like them to just hear me without talking or fixing anything”.
People are almost always very clear about what they want the other to do. They are usually very clear about what the other persons faulty actions and qualities are. However, as you likely know, it is next to impossible and completely exhausting to devote yourself to changing another. Blame, frustration, nagging and disappointment are the usual ways we experience this external criticism. Yet when we can turn toward ourselves and see that what we are experiencing in the other is our own experience we have so much power to change.
With this is mind I ask the next powerful question, “How can YOU do that very thing in your relationship to break the cycle?”. In other words, using our example, I am asking them how they can stop what they are doing and just listen to their partner, without fixing anything. I am asking them how they can be the change they wish to see.
My personal experience
I see the mirroring experience most when I am relating to my children. I sometimes get frustrated and wonder why they aren’t they doing what I want them to do. Why aren’t they listening to what I say, why are they ignoring me and playing around? And then I realise, I am not doing what they want me to do. They want me to play with them and listen to what they have to say about their day.
I need to be the change I want to see. So I stop. I listen to them, give them a little of my time. I might say to them, “So you want to tell me about what you’ve done today and play some lego?”. Everything seems to stop there as they relax and feel loved. I am now free to express some of my needs too and they have become willing to listen and meet them. I ask, “Ok, how about once I have done that we’ll clean up the room and then go to dinner, ok?”. We’ve met each others needs and as such the world settles around us perfectly.
We are often so stuck in our own experience (they’re not listening to me) that we forget that this is their experience too (we’re not listening to them). We forget that they are just a mirror to us, and us to them.
Looking into the mirror
If you want to be the best you that you can be, start looking deeply into the mirror. Really look at what you see in others and know that it is YOU that you see. It is important to be crystal clear that the only reason someones qualities are annoying you is because they are also yours. As long as you do not acknowledge them as your own they will continue to frustrate you, while owning up to them provides you with the chance to grow.
If you find yourself being treated with disrespect, look within yourself and see who you treat with disrespect, whether it be a friend or yourself. If your partner criticises you, you will find that you are critical of yourself and most probably of others. If you never seem to fall in love, perhaps you don’t believe in love? If no one believes in your dreams perhaps you’re the one who doesn’t think you’ll ever amount to anything. It is only you who holds you down. It is only you who can lift you up.
And remember that this is true of others, that they are seeing themselves in you too. So it is likely that when you are head to head in battle with a lover, a child or a friend that they are having a mirrored experience. It is likely that you both feel distant, or unheard or unloved. Trying to get them to change the experience is fruitless. Instead look clearly into the mirror and ask, how can I be the change I wish to see?* It works, I promise.
*The caveat to this is abuse behaviour and relationship. The mirror in this instance is in relation to trust and self worth, and if you are in an abusive relationship please seek help from a licensed professional.