Conflict is inevitable. It arises every time two or more people feel that their needs, values, desires, or ideas are different and clash.
Handled successfully, conflict is an opportunity to stimulate individual growth, understand and strengthen relationships and facilitate effective solutions to problems.
Conflict that triggers strong feelings expresses personal and relational needs – for safety, security, respect, valuing, closeness and intimacy.
The common perception to conflict is that it is fighting, and is therefore unpleasant and undesirable. It provokes negatives responses that can break down relationships as it erects barriers. It is generally concealed, suppressed, avoided, denied, projected, displaced, internalized or expressed violently.
Causes leading to conflict in intimate relationships:
- A lack of understanding of your own needs. If you don’t know yourself, or are out of touch with yourself, you can’t figure what you need, and naturally you can’t communicate this to your mate. By not being specific, anything can be expressed as troubling you (think about fights over the location of the toothpaste in the bathroom)
- A lack of understanding of your partner’s differing needs.
- A lack of understanding that conflict is mostly based on perceptions, rather than reality, and feelings, rather than facts.
- Stress diminishes your ability to understand your needs and your partner’s and amplifies a negative outlook to perceptions and feelings. Stress increases the occurrence and destructiveness of conflict.
Common negative, dysfunctional responses to conflict in a relationship:
- Denial – suppressing, repressing and blocking thoughts and feelings rather than examining them in self, or not responding to matters important to the other person
- Withdrawal – can be physical, emotional or psychological, not facing to the problem, avoiding it; may include withdrawing love, creating a fear of abandonment and rejection, and insecurity in the other person
- Submission – yielding to the other party for fear of explosive reactions, creating responses such as resentment, anxiety or depression
- Immobilisation – freeze response, not doing anything, expecting bad outcomes
- Displacement – for example, not identifying the origin of conflict as being at work, but expressing it instead within the home
- Internalization – using self-blame and guilt or anxiety, assuming responsibility for the origin and outcome
- Projection – like blaming others, devaluating them, using angry, hurtful words
- Addictive behaviours – using alcohol and drugs or having obsessional thoughts
- Violence – expressing conflict with threat, coercion, intimidation, whether physical or psychological
Effective responses to conflict:
- Recognising what is important to you and to the other person.
- Understanding that it is natural and pervasive and need be minimized or managed
- Acknowledging that it is based on your own perceptions and feelings, which need to be dealt with.
- Minimizing your stress level, especially when handling conflict
- Knowing that conflicts have triggers and a typology and that some situations are predictable.
- Being collaborative and adaptive as opposed to coercive when handling a problem; basically seeking compromises and not punishing
- Talking about it
- Understanding that resolving a conflict is not always an external matter, and that understanding of own issues is necessary.
- Managing your own emotions and behaviours, so to be able to communicate with others without punishing, threatening or frightening them.
- Being aware of differences and being respectful in words and actions. Believing that the interests and needs of all involved can be supported.
- Being willing and ready to forgive and forget, once the matter is talked about, never to be raised again. A topic raised several times hints to either lack of resolution or inability to let go of resentment and hurt.
- Manage your stress level : slow down before trying to solve anything, there are many stress management tips (eg slow breathing, taking time out, going for a walk) that can be applied.
- Manage your emotions and feelings: be aware of how you feel about the situation and acknowledge rather than sedate that you feel anger, fear or grief. Connecting to those emotions rather than avoiding them for the sake of ‘rationality’ leads to a better grasping of the conflict. Connecting to those emotions does not mean letting them run amok. Time out and reflecting on those feelings give you an opportunity to ground yourself.
- Check your non-verbal, body, language. Most of the communication elements in conflict are non-verbal. A calm tone of voice, reassuring touch, open body posture are ways to communicate that the exchange can be diffused.
- Identify and consider causes, symptoms and explanations for the conflict. Addressing the cause leads to resolution.
- Causes sometimes are not consciously known by participants or are concealed. It requires honesty with self and the other person
- Symptoms are signals that something is wrong. They are behaviours, feelings and thoughts that are dysfunctional. For example, drinking to alleviate stress, coercing collaboration of another party, and displacing expression of hostility onto another person, strong expression of emotions, physical symptoms such as illness, increased accident proneness, refusal to communicate, etc.
- Explanations are answers to the question “what happened and why?”. It reflects and rationalizes the origin of the conflict. All persons involved will most likely come up with different views.
- Remain calm and express feelings with words, not with closed body language
- Be specific about the issue, do not generalize with words such as ‘always’ or ‘never’
- Deal with one issue at a time and do not stockpile issues. It is best addressing issues as they occur, as if drawn from the past, explanations are already formulated.
- Do not accuse, do not hit below the belt, don’t go in areas that are too sensitive to a person.
- Learn to listen to the other person: this involves allowing them to fully express themselves without interruption, and paraphrasing them to provide feedback that ensures you understood the meaning of their message.