Psych Your Mind: En Garde! More on the art of fighting fair
Emotions can be both wonderful and debilitating sensations, often simultaneously. As Courtney Love so eloquently put it, "I love so much I hate." Because emotions, like psychoactive substances, can become overwhelming to one's being (mentally, physically and spiritually), developing self-control, learning coping strategies and importantly, mature conflict resolution is essential to one's very survival. In fact, as a course in criminology I once took taught me, the number one type of homicide occurs between two males, aged 18 to 24, fighting over the same female mate. Love can kill.
In any argument, you will find yourself in one of two roles: that of the instigator or that of the retaliator. While both terms conjure up negative connotations, it's important to understand that conflict in itself is NOT necessarily a bad thing. Rather, it's how you deal with it that determines whether the outcome is positive or negative. In fact, many psychologists argue that conflict can be the breeding ground for both self and relationship growth. For example, though initiating emotional discussions is not anyone's particular cup of tea, dealing with issues when they occur (as opposed to bottling up one's feelings) is a more mature and healthy response in that it prevents resentment, which can lead to subconscious attempts to sabotage the offender, from building up. Likewise, while it may not be a pleasant experience to hear someone out in terms of how you've hurt or offended them (it bruises one's ego, after all), allowing yourself to get defensive and failing to validate the other party's feelings only ever makes small conflicts turn into maelstroms. With this said, if you've got to tango, you need to learn the moves. In any conflict:
1. It's important to talk openly, calmly and honestly:
If you don't feel comfortable in expressing yourself candidly, you may want to contemplate what the relationship in question actually means to you. Those who love, respect and value you will accept you, warts and all. That's their job as is yours to reciprocate. Accordingly, if you've done something stupid, wrong, hurtful, whathaveyou, be mature and own up to it. Accepting responsibility for your actions is one of the first major steps to growing up.
2. To avoid defensive reactions that bar communications, learn to preface your complaints with statements of care:
For example, before launching into how the offender has hurt you, say something gentle along the following lines: "I'd really like us to be able to have an open and mature relationship with each other so that we can better understand each other's perspectives. With that said, I'd like to speak with you about what happened the other day. I'm not sure if you're aware, but (this) and (this action) really hurt my feelings."
I know this may seem like a bunch of gobbledegook, but honestly, just making a few statements such as those above before participating in a full-on emotional discourse can save you from getting into a further conflict about the argument itself! There are a few important aspects of the above preface worth mentioning:
a) the emphasis on what you desire in your relationship with the other person. By stating outright how much you value the other person, their perspective and what ideally you'd like to work toward with them relationshipwise, it minimizes the chance of a defensive reaction by reaffirming your words are coming from a place of care and a desire to fix issues, rather than create them.
b) the emphasis on 'speaking with' the individual, rather than 'speaking to' them. Subtle changes in word phrasing can result in dramatic effects, both for the better or worse. By using the expression 'speak with' in this context rather than 'speak to,' it illustrates your desire for cooperative non-confrontational discussion as opposed to lecturing or belittling, which again, for obvious reasons, will minimize the chance of a defensive reaction.
c) the emphasis on owning your feelings. Again, though subtle, stating that you felt hurt (i.e.: an 'I statement') as opposed to "YOU HURT ME" (i.e.: a 'You statement') makes a world of difference in terms of the reaction it'll merit. By owning your feelings in discussions, it allows you to explain your point of view, while at the same time compelling the offender to validate your feelings by demonstrating empathy.
3. If there's a chance things will get heated, set ground rules for discussion, such as allotting each speaker a time limit to express their concerns, while making it clear that personal attacks will not be tolerated:
If one or both parties begins to "brickwall" (i.e.: gets so emotional that there's no logic in their words and they're effectively only spewing fire from a defensive stance), it may be best to leave the "scene of the crime" until you've both had a chance to cool down. Note, however, that it's important to not leave the discussion hanging in limbo for too long as that too could breed further problems.
4. Avoid both saying and accepting the "I'm fine" statement:
In a word, it's b.s. If there's a distinct frustration, anger, annoyance, etc. in someone's tone of voice and they tell you "I'm fine," don't buy it. That's not license to poke and prod them, however, as this will likely only piss them off further. A more successful approach would be stating something along the lines of, "I don't wish to irritate you, but it seems to me there is something on your mind. If you'd like to speak about it, I'd be happy to listen. I'm just concerned." As with the last suggested phrasing, there are some key aspects to point out here:
a) the emphasis on not wishing to create further problems and a genuine concern for the individual's wellbeing. By including both of these considerations in your approach, it should help the individual feel "safe" in expressing their concerns as well as calm any anger that may be brewing, even if what has gotten them riled up in the first place directly involved something you said or did.
b) the use of "it seems to me" and "I'm concerned": Again, both of these phrasings indicate an owning of your emotions without putting words into the other party's mouth. If the individual is using the "I'm fine" statement, the last thing you want to do is assume you know what's bothering them. NEVER assume anything in a conflict – people will and do surprise you.
c) the emphasis on when THEY'D like to speak about what's ailing them. You've effectively put the ball in the other person's court, BUT, IMPORTANTLY, ALSO indicated you'd like to resolve the issue. This demonstrates a mature approach and again should help the individual open up in a more timely and calm manner.
5. ALWAYS avoid childish "I told you so"-like remarks as well as passive aggressiveness (i.e.: acting like everything is fine, only to turn around seemingly out of nowhere and explode):
I believe this is self-explanatory.
6. Learn the art of forgiving and letting go:
You've heard the expression, "focus on the task at hand." While usually uttered in reference to the workplace, it would do you a great service to also employ this when it comes to conflict resolution. Ongoing guilttripping is psychological abuse intended to manipulate and establish unfair power dynamics in a relationship. It's a low move and accomplishes nothing ... nothing positive, anyway.
Conflicts, as I stated near the beginning of this piece, can serve as a tremendous source of growth, but that's only if you allow yourself and others to move forward, learn from your mistakes and let go.
As for forgiving others, set limits and know them. Some acts are altogether unforgiveable – that's a given – but remember, forgiveness benefits you just as much as the offender. Studies have proven that maintaining grudges not only affects individuals on an emotional level, but further can affect one's physical health. The same goes for living with guilt.
7. Remember, there is a HUGE difference from the listener's perspective in terms of being outright called a derogatory comment VERSUS having one's actions labelled as symptomatic of that derogatory comment (i.e.: "You are a bitch" vs. "You are being a bitch"):
Yes, that's right, folks, for clarity purposes, I'm referencing yet again the concept of the "personal attack." The former statement above implies a permanent character trait that one cannot change, while the latter points out that while you are clearly displeased with the individual's current choices/ behaviour, you still love/respect them. Criticize actions, not individuals. In other words, this week's lesson: fight fair.
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