Essay

Effective and Ineffective Ways to Navigate Conflict in Relationships

By Duff McDuffee on November 7th, 2014 1

The primary obstacle to maintaining long-term intimate relationships (aside from infidelity) is managing conflict. If you think about it, every relationship that ends does so with some sort of conflict or argument. So it is imperative that we learn exactly how to navigate conflict in ways that do not permanently rupture the bonds of relating altogether.

Many relationship therapists and therapies have been developed in an attempt to teach us these vital skills. Here is an example from Boulder men’s life coach Jayson Gaddis which I will be discussing for the rest of this article, so please do watch it:


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j26N4vEVm7s

First off, I’ve never met Jayson Gaddis, but he’s a “friend of a friend” and has been associated with various men’s groups events at the local Boulder Integral center. That and reading some of his blog and Facebook posts is all I know about him. In this article I will only discuss the methods presented in this video.

The video itself is well-produced, with good lighting, audio, production quality, and play acting. That is non-trivial as I’ve found! I myself am incredibly awkward on video, and can’t get the light and sound right. So bravo on that!

I very much agree that “we never got taught how to fight,” or for that matter, to stop fighting. On television and in other media, it is almost never the case that nonviolent conflict resolution is demonstrated or modeled, and certainly not in most families.

Gaddis gives an example of what not to do, and it is well-done. Leading off by saying, “that’s not what I said” and then making vague universal generalizations like “you always do this to me” is very unlikely to lead to a successful resolution to conflict! No doubt many viewers can relate to arguing unproductively in a similar way.

So what are Gaddis’ recommendations for preventing hours of fighting?

Time Out

Gaddis recommends first taking a time out when feeling unresourceful. I think this can be very useful.

When the sympathetic nervous system is activated, the social nervous system is inhibited. This means that it is literally more difficult to socially connect with others when we feel anxious or angry. Our inner ear muscles that pick out the human voice from the background sounds even change such that we literally have more difficulty hearing what others are saying (see The Polyvagal Theory by Stephen Porges). So when Jayson acts the line “I heard you” and “I know what you said” and his wife complains, he might have literally not heard correctly due to physiological changes caused by stress. The cause of the stress could even have been from something he was working on at the computer before the conversation with his wife started.

That said, arguing for a full hour before taking a time out is torturous! That is a really long time in my opinion. And an “in your face” gesture for calling a time out seems to me unnecessarily aggressive. Saying “I need a time out” is sufficient.

I do like however his addition of how long the time out will last: “I’ll be back in one hour.” That is very useful, for it makes the time out temporary and thus not a threat to the relationship.

Much less useful is what many people do which is to threaten to end the relationship entirely, or even actually do so. This creates a cycle of ending the relationship and then restarting every time there is a conflict, making it difficult to actually end the relationship for good if the time comes because getting back together always follows proclamations of it being over. Very nasty stuff.

Gaddis then demonstrates going into an office to “get clear on what’s going on on my side.” During the time out, Gaddis recommends journaling or meditating to figure out “my part” in the situation. That’s not necessarily a bad idea for self-inquiry, but also has some limitations.

Instead of “figuring out my part,” my goal is to inhibit the sympathetic nervous system (fight-flight response) and get into a resourceful state where I can then empathize with my partner and also think more clearly and objectively about the situation and any relevant content in our disagreement. I find that Core Transformation has been by far the most useful method for giving me the self-empathy that I need, and I’ve used it during a “time out” on many occasions.

Core Transformation does more than identify the trigger and give me conscious insight and an origin-of-my-reaction story, but also actually transforms the unresourceful state as well as eliminating or reducing the trigger in the future. That ends not only the fighting in the moment, but into the future as well.

Exercise can also be a useful way to transform the fight-flight reaction, but Gaddis here rejects it in favor of his preferred strategies of journaling and meditation. I’m not sure exactly why, because exercise has been shown to increase Heart Rate Variability (HRV) which is an indicator of a nervous system that is not stressed (parasympathetic/social nervous system activated, sympathetic/fight-flight nervous system inhibited). I’ve found that a walk around the block or a quick workout can be very useful when in a stressed and unresourceful state (“triggered”).

In fact, I personally think the worst thing is to stay stationary when we have fight-flight responses in the body, because those chemical reactions were meant for brief and intense encounters with life-threatening emergencies that involved moving the body rapidly. Sitting still in that chemical brew is what leads to toxic chronic stress.

I also want to avoid dropping down into the lizard brain “freeze” response, which can lead to a sense of hopelessness and despair. So one of the first things I like to do when I’m triggered into sympathetic nervous system arousal is move my body. Recently there was a family health scare that involved going to the emergency room, and my heart rate was definitely elevated as a result. I actually did a few sprints out in the parking lot to soak up some of that adrenaline. That and some tactical breathing definitely helped to calm me down as well as prevent any traumatic residue from the event.

So instead of journaling or meditating, I might suggest trying running, doing a few sets of pushups, taking a walk around the block, doing some tactical breathing, or otherwise moving around until you calm down a bit. Then if you are capable do some Core Transformation. Conscious insight on the other hand is unnecessary and highly overrated.

Returning and Repairing

In the play acting, after taking a time out Gaddis comes out of his office. He does some things really well to start. First he knocks on the door, which nonverbally signals “can I come in?” This is very different from barging in uninvited, and implies that he would like an invitation.

He then follows up the gentle invitation verbally with “Hey, are you available?” and waits for her “yea” before moving any closer into the room and saying, “Ok I’m back.” Continuing in this very cautious way he takes a couple steps and then almost catches himself, pausing and saying, “do you have a second to connect?” That was very well-done, and worth modeling. Initial reconnection after a time out is touchy, and so asking permission both nonverbally and verbally before entering the physical space as well as before re-initiating conversation is a great idea.

Then Gaddis immediately starts talking about his own experience, starting with “that was crucial for me” and she listens without interrupting. That to me does not seem realistic. If I were in conflict with someone and they took a time out, then came back and immediately started talking about themselves and their exciting insights about themselves, I’d interpret that as they don’t care to hear my perspective and I’d feel annoyed by that.

As the old joke goes, “enough about me — what do you think about me?”

Gaddis asks, “are you open to hearing?” and she says, “yea, that would be helpful.” And he replies, “and then I’d love to hear you out.” Certainly turns must be taken, but I find when in conflict it is more effective to act according to the principle “seek first to understand, then to be understood” from the late Stephen Covey. In other words, ask to understand the other person’s experience first.

Why do I find this is more effective? Primarily because when neither person is listening and both are wanting to be heard, then one person must step forward and volunteer to listen first or else the argument will go on endlessly.

Listen to me!
No, you listen to me!
Ok, go ahead…

See? That’s the quickest way to end a conflict! But it’s super hard when we are feeling unresourceful, hence the usefulness of a time out, to get more resourceful so we can listen.

If I come back from my time out and ask to be listened to first, there is nothing to stop the same argument from occurring again. Listen to me! No, you listen to me! But if I volunteer to listen first, and crucially until the other person says that my understanding of their perspective is 100% accurate, then that can help to break the cycle of conflict. It can also help to inhibit the sympathetic nervous system of the other person, to a point where they might be able and willing to hear your perspective.

But I want the other person to volunteer to listen first! Of course, but so do they. One of us has to do it. By pre-committing to being that person, I find that my conflicts in interpersonal relationships are short-lived.

Of course demonstrating that you understand the other person’s perspective without necessarily agreeing with it is itself a challenging skill.

Deeper Problems

Weirdly, the scene ends without him asking about her perspective. He speaks first, speaks only about his exciting insights about himself, and does not ask her about her experience after saying he would. These three things combined seem to me a pattern, and not a pleasant one. Ultimately we don’t get any instruction in this video at least in how to listen effectively to the other person, although in another video he does emphasize that it is critical to “get the other person” and “validate” them, although specific techniques for doing so are not mentioned.

Some of Gaddis’ other suggestions are much more problematic. Returning and repairing is good, essential even, but I question how he does some specific aspects of it. He uses the format “when you did X, I felt Y” that forms part of Marshall Rosenberg’s Non-violent Communication (NVC), but then interjects interpretations as feelings: “I feel not seen by you lately and I feel unsupported.”

In addition to the many mixed metaphors here, neither “not seen” nor “unsupported” are names of feelings. Instead, these are meanings he gave to some observable behavior his wife was engaged in through an interpretative process. Anger is a feeling, “not seen” is a vague metaphorical interpretation (for she literally can see him). It’s not specific and it’s not actionable. What exactly does he want her to do here to “feel seen”? Similarly, lonely is a feeling, “unsupported” is a metaphorical interpretation of some unspecified behavior. How specifically does he want her to support him? The success criteria here are completely undefined, and so nothing has been resolved nor learned from such a conversation. If I were his wife here, I still wouldn’t know how to support him or assist him in meeting his needs. That means the same exact conflict is likely to occur again in a similar context.

For communication in conflict to be non-violent and thus successful, we must avoid such interpretations, which in essence are veiled accusations: “you made me feel angry because you aren’t seeing and supporting me (aka you are not meeting my needs in the ways that I want but haven’t requested clearly).” Gaddis claims that his interpretations are “just owning myself,” but that is clearly not the case — these ways of expressing include interpretations, judgments, cause-effect (what in NLP we call complex equivalence), and implied demands. That’s why the basic NVC structure involves observations, feelings, needs, and requests, but no stating of one’s judgments, demands, or personal history. Most people do not respond resourcefully to judgments or demands, which is why this distinction about feelings vs. interpretations is critical for conflict resolution.

Gaddis continues with the example, demonstrating that one thing he would do is share a narrative about the roots of his unresourceful state, tracing back to his family of origin. That can be useful insight if effective change work is then applied to transforming those imprint experiences, but without that transformation the back story is irrelevant to the here and now and in some cases can even serve as a rationalization for verbal and physical abuse. There is insight, but no real change, nor even a request for a change in behavior in this example. What learning has taken place here? What emotional or behavioral changes will occur as a result of “dealing with myself,” expressing metaphorical interpretations of unspecified behavior, and providing a therapeutic narrative of the imprint experiences which I believe caused my unresourcefulness?

Some outcomes that would actually be useful are things like…

  • responding automatically more resourcefully in the same context
  • one or more parties changing their behavior in some way to meet each other’s needs more successfully
  • a clear understanding of how to communicate with each other more effectively in the future

…but sadly, these do not seem to be outcomes of the methods taught in this video.

Again, I think using a technique that actually works to transform unresourceful responses is the essential step here. That and leading with empathy. In fact, I’ve found that being heard by the other person and even communicating what was going on with me can sometimes be completely optional if I’ve gotten to a resourceful state on my own during my “time out.” And when we do communicate, I think it is important to do so with the utmost compassion and clarity, not mixing in interpretations and claiming they are just emotions, or narcissistically sharing only our own perspectives.

If these sorts of errors were not widespread throughout therapy-cults like “Authentic World,” I wouldn’t even bother writing articles like this, but sadly they are. Personally I think it is worse to learn and practice ineffective skills than to have never encountered any skills training at all! But if you are going to learn skills, I would recommend Core Transformation and Nonviolent Communication as good starting points, in addition to selectively taking the good skills demonstrated in this video while dropping the other aspects.

After transforming his own response with Core Transformation, he might in this example say something like this: “when you interrupted me while I was working, I felt angry because I was trying to concentrate. I interpreted your interrupting me as you not caring about how important my work is to me. I’ve been stressed lately and I totally overreacted and I’m sorry.” And then a conversation could take place from there, perhaps ending with the request, “when I’m working at the computer, could you ask me if I’m available to talk before starting a conversation?” That could lead to a change in behavior and a change in how the two relate with each other, at least in this context. No conscious insight into the origins of the reaction are necessary, nor does any narrative about one’s family of origin need be constructed or communicated for the conflict to be resolved.

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