The other day my son (age 5) came storming home from a friend's house. He didn't say a word, but ran straight upstairs to his room and slammed the door. After a few minutes of cooling down, I asked him "what happened?" He and his buddy had gotten into a little argument and things quickly escalated into "You're not my friend anymore." As I texted back and forth with my neighbor, we tried to understand the truth of what had happened and how best to help our sons repair the rift and forgive one another.
When working with couples in therapy, I see a similar dynamic play out again and again. Human beings have pretty established patterns of behavior, and when conflict arises we tend to fall into our well-used patterns of relating. Often these patterns were learned in childhood, in our family of origin. Personality type also plays into how we handle conflict: some of us love a good argument, and have no problem asserting how we feel, others avoid conflict at all costs. When we find ourselves deep in an argument, we often lash out and say things we later regret.
So how do you stop repeating the same unhealthy patterns in conflict? How do you move toward the other person relationally, emotionally, and physically, when you either want to run away or point fingers?
A simple tool I use often with couples in therapy is active listening. Rather than have one person talking over another, dominating the conversation, or avoiding the problem altogether, I find it helpful to guide couples in taking turns expressing how they feel. Active listening is quite simple, once you get the hang of it.
Person A gets to share about the conflict or issue in a way that communicates their own personal thoughts and opinions without pointing fingers. The use of "I statements" here is essential. For example, "When we fight about finances, I feel insecure and..." "I don't like the way we talked to each other...." "I would prefer to discuss this in..." The goal is to avoid using language like "YOU always do this..." "You make me feel mad..." "YOU are the problem!" (these sort of statements generally don't facilitate healthy communication).
While Person A is sharing Person B has to listen intently without interrupting, arguing, or responding.
Next, Person B paraphrases what they heard to Person A, demonstrating an understanding of the issue from the other's point of view.
Once Person A has shared their side, and Person B has paraphrased, the conversation opens up for Person B to respond to the issues raised in their own words. Each person gets a chance to share how they feel and have the other respond. Often, being heard and really listening help a couple get to the heart of the conflict and resolve things more quickly.
Another practical tool for use in conflict is to establish a safe word or phrase to use when things start to get out of hand. This has the potential to arrest unhealthy conflict, such as repeating old patterns or starting on a personal attack. A safe word is used to stop, think, and take a breather. Establish a safe word with your mate and use it when necessary as a reminder to fight fair and utilize active listening skills rather than fighting words. Examples could be "Time out," "Let's play fair," or "Hold up!"
What is so beautiful about active listening is that it encourages empathy and allows those in conflict to slow down, listen, and respond. Active listening works in all kinds of conflict and miscommunication, such as with sibling or friend issues, too. In the case of my son and his friend, they just needed their moms to guide an honest conversation about how they felt. Once the miscommunication was cleared up, the boys looked at one another, smiled, and ran off to play!
Next time you find yourself in a heated discussion with someone, take a deep breath, slow down, and really listen. Show the other person you care by taking the time to hear what they have to say. Oftentimes, being heard is the first step to moving on.