As a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, couples and families (and even sometimes friends and colleagues) come to talk with me about their relationships for a variety of reasons. Most commonly, something has them feeling stuck. They’re having a disagreement for which they can’t see a compromise, or they can’t seem to move past a particular event or conflict, or they find themselves having the same argument over and over. Although they may hope I’ll come in and make a judgement about who’s right or tell them what to do, I feel I can be more helpful by offering conflict skills and a new perspective on the issue. This empowers folks to reapproach old conversations in new ways, plus those same new skills may be helpful again in future standoffs. Here are a few examples:
Change Your Goal: Take a break from trying to reach an agreement or solution, and spend some time making sure each person fully understands where the other is coming from. Understanding doesn’t just mean hearing, it means knowing what’s at stake for the other, what’s important to them and what concerns they have, and also believing their point of view is a valid one to hold. You don’t have to agree with a person to put yourself in their place and admit you can see why they might feel the way they feel. You’ll be surprised how much tension gets relieved when both people feel the other person sees where they’re coming from and that they’re not being judged as irrational.
"Listen. Just listen. You don’t have to agree. Just see if you can understand that there’s another person who has a completely different experience of the same reality." ~Esther Perel
Shift Your Focus: Instead of thinking about how unfair or unreasonable the other is acting, shift your focus toward how you’re behaving. Think for a minute about what type of partner/friend/parent/colleague you would like to be, and then check to see if the way you’ve been handling this situation lines up with those aspirations. It’s almost guaranteed that if you start to behave differently, you’ll get a different response from the other. So, if your goal is to be a good listener, strive to stay level-headed, open and flexible. The best part is, even if the other person doesn’t respond well, you can walk away feeling proud of how you handled yourself.
"So what's the secret to staying together?" I asked her. "Be nice?" she offered. I laughed, but that may be it, the way a secret to losing weight is to eat less. Be nice. Don't leave. That's all." ~Ada Calhoun, Wedding Toasts I’ll Never Give
Put Out Your Fire: People don’t and can’t stay calm all the time (and it’s a good thing we don’t, since our emotions often serve the purpose of alerting us when there’s a threat to our well-being!). When our emotions are running high, we are too activated to patiently listen and learn. Increase your chances of success by waiting to talk about a conflict until you are relatively calm. This might mean stepping away for a few minutes, taking deep breaths, getting some fresh air, or just reminding yourself of your long-term goal. (Is your goal really to get your way, or is it for this relationship to feel good and connected again?)
"Usually when we are angry with someone we are more interested in fighting with them than in taking care of our own feelings. It’s like someone whose house is on fire running after the person who has set fire to their house instead of going home to put out the flames. If we don’t go home to take care of our anger, our whole house will burn down." ~Thich Nhat Hanh, How to Fight
What About Their Fire?: Along that same line of thinking, the other person isn’t going to be able to truly listen or understand you if they’re highly emotional, so that’s not the time to insist they see things from your point of view. If they seem very emotional, try suggesting that you both take a break from the topic until you can try again with clearer minds. Remind the person that you do want to hear what they have to say, but it’s difficult to focus when everybody’s upset, so you’d like to try again later. If it’s especially hard to move on because the topic feels so important, try setting a timer for just 15 or 20 minutes and checking in to see if that’s a better time to talk.
"When another person makes you suffer, it is because he suffers deeply within himself, and his suffering is spilling over. He does not need punishment; he needs help." ~Thich Nhat Hanh
Team Up: Narrative therapists believe the words you use to describe the problem impact how you see it. Try re-imagining your adversary as the argument or pattern you two are stuck in, instead of making the other person your opponent. Use language like “We are both really struggling with this issue,” or “We’ve been having such a hard time with this problem.” That language puts you two on the same team and the conflict itself becomes the problem to fix. From there, you have a shared goal: Work through this stubborn problem that’s got its hooks in both of you.
"Integrate the experience of the other: You didn’t like it and I didn’t like it. Now it’s a 'we.'" ~Esther Perel
Learn more about the author of this post: Erica Steenbergen, LMFT