By Joey Ciappina
What skills can I use to communicate during a conflict?
Relationships with family, friends, and partners are not always easy. Healthy communication is important for sustaining long-term relationships.
Often, people think conflicts within relationships are problematic. However, conflict can healthily signal the need for relationship change. The real problem is poor communication skills. For example, by reusing old memories, introducing biased perspectives, not actively listening, and stonewalling within conversations.
So how do we navigate and use healthy communication approaches, to resolve conflict?
Keep the conversation focused
Have you ever had a heated discussion, then forgotten what sparked the argument in the first place? Often, this occurs when we reuse old memories. These old memories may be filled with pet peeves or feelings of hurt. It may feel necessary to address everything bothering you at once. However, adding in these old memories within a conversation is a formula for heightened emotion and confusion. Unfortunately, adding in old memories can, firstly, cloud the main issue and, secondly, completely minimise the ability to find a mutual understanding to the current issue’s solution.
Avoid argument-bias by taking turns to share perspectives
In a heated conversation, our thinking can become biased. We tend to judge the strength of arguments, based on the plausibility of a conclusion, rather than how strong our beliefs or factual evidence actually support the conclusion. When you have a biased thought process, it may feel like you and the other person do not agree on anything.
Sometimes, we need to lower the emotional volume of an argument to reduce argument-induced bias. One powerful way to do so, is to actively listen. Resist acting on the need to interrupt the person speaking. Avoid beginning to blame the other person or trying to defend yourself in response to criticism; which blame is often a behaviour related to our upbringing or past experiences. It is hard, but if you can, make a conscious effort just to listen. Keep an ear out for how you can empathise with the other person, rather than deflecting. When it is your turn to speak, reflect and acknowledge what the person has said and invite them to speak more. After you actively listen to each other, the intensity of the conflict decreases, and they will be more willing to listen to you.
It is completely normal to take time to think through the situation and cool off from a disagreement. However, avoiding these tough conversations or refusing to talk to someone, often called stonewalling, is detrimental to any type of relationship.
Often, stonewalling is used as a coping mechanism to reduce and avoid conflict, or intentionally manipulate the other person. However, stonewalling causes you to withdraw, be distant, and grow apart from the other person. The conflict with the other person then fails to be resolved.
Actively try to repair the relationship
Happy relationships are formed with the ability to make repair attempts– the secret weapon within emotionally intelligent relationships. By making a repair attempt, you reduce the negativity of the conflict from escalating out of control.
The goal of a repair attempt is to understand what went wrong, and how to better your next conversations and actions. Firstly, validate the other persons’ emotions, empathise with them and take responsibility for your behaviour. Then, tell the person how important they are to you, share your ideas around how you or they got triggered, and then initiate a discussion of how to avoid the situation next time.
One way to use repair statements is by changing directed “you” statements, to “I” statements. For example:
Use: “I am upset, I would like to fix this situation with you”
Use: “My reaction was too extreme, and I am sorry” or “I can see my part in this”
Use: “I’m feeling unappreciated” or “that felt like an insult”.
Use: “One thing I admire about you is…”
Use: “I understand you, and I am sorry”
So, what are the key take-home messages:
- Stay focussed on finding solutions to the current problem.
- Avoid bringing up the past: stay present in the now.
- Listen without interrupting the speaker.
- Reflect before responding.
- Consider the speaker’s perspective.
- Practice empathy when criticized, instead of getting defensive.
- Empathise then initiate those challenging conversations
- Identify what went wrong and discuss how to avoid the situation next time.
About the Author
Joey Ciappina is a Provisional Psychologist at PsychMed. He is passionate about providing resources that help individuals engage in healthier behaviours, cope with stress, and enhance self-esteem. Joey believes that authentic and open conversations within relationships and households invite opportunities to expand social support, create shared meaning, and increase the ability to resolve conflict.
Bodie, G. D., Vickery, A. J., Cannava, K., & Jones, S. M. (2015). The role of active listening in informal helping conversations: Impact on perceptions of listener helpfulness, sensitivity, and supportiveness and discloser emotional improvement. Western Journal of Communication, 79(2), 151-173.
McKay, M., Davis, M., & Fanning, P. (2009). Messages: The communication skills book. New Harbinger Publications.