Many people believe a good relationship is one where no one fights. But I believe just the opposite. Of course I don’t believe that picking fights, or constant disagreement, makes for hopeful partnerships, but I do believe that with healthy conflict comes resolution—and that is the mark of a solid relationship.
I’m a big believer in conflict resolution. If two people are focused on solving their problems and resolving conflicts, they are off to a positive start. But how does that work? What should happen?
I’ll start by saying that I’m obviously not talking about toxic behavior, abuse or neglect. Those are clear markers of a bad relationship, and if you are in the midst of any of those experiences, please seek help and get yourself out of the situation.
But beyond that, within a relationship that is reasonable, here’s what should not happen: blame, denial, stubbornness, clamming up or shutting down. These reactions will get you, and the relationship, nowhere. In fact, it’s likely the partnership won’t succeed if this is how two people always communicate. Think of any relationship—familial, work related, friendly or otherwise—that was headed in the wrong direction, and then think about how you dealt with conflict.
Over the years, as a teacher I’ve taken many conflict resolution courses. They were invaluable to me and helped to improve my relationships with my family, friends and my then-spouse.
One of the most important things I learned is that language is an immediate balm to the situation. This is not only the gift wrapping, but the skill is a gift in itself. There are a few types of language I want to cover.
1. Verbal language. Start to speak in low, not quite hushed, but quiet tones. Speak slowly and make sure to articulate your words. If it isn’t possible because you’re too heated, don’t speak until it is. If you’re a yeller, this will be a challenge but you can practice (more on that later).
2. Body language. Try not to fold your arms, put your hands on your hips, tap your foot, roll your eyes, shake your head, make fists, look heavenward or keep your gaze to the floor. Try to sit, if at all possible. Keep your posture lifted and open. Look at each other—eye contact does wonders. During training, I’ve heard some lecturers advise couples to hold hands, or rub each other’s backs, (but at that point, I’d guess the situation is resolved).
The second way language is important is in the words you use.
3. Choose your words wisely. The word “bad” gets you nowhere. How could anyone learn from, “I feel bad” or “What you did to me was bad”? Be specific. Really identify how you feel: betrayed or disappointed? Unheard, ignored, or dismissed? The more specific you are, the more information you give your partner, and the more doors become open to resolution.
4. Reflect. A spiritual director I went to once advised that, in the heat of the moment, or when reflecting, think of 5-7 different emotions you’re feeling at that moment. Look at the last two, they’re usually the most honest.
For that moment, you don’t need to explain why. Maybe your partner, if it’s a really crucial argument, could ask why, or could start to understand what’s going on with you.
5. Avoid absolutes. It’s unlikely your partner “always” or “never” does something. It sounds like you’re not paying attention to the times your partner is not doing what you accused. It also immediately puts the other on the defensive by stating the obvious: “I don’t ALWAYS do that!” Point out a particular scenario as an example, or maybe two examples, instead. That will get you somewhere positive in the end.
Language, both verbal and physical, are two powerful ways to turn an argument around completely. If you can get these skills under your belt, your communication style will improve.