You CAN Work It Out! Skills and Wisdom for Conflict Resolution in Relationships
*This is an article from the Summer 2021 issue of Combat Stress
By Robert Kallus, MS, DAIS
Because psychological trauma leaves the survivor with unprocessed and unwanted emotions, such as sadness, anger and fear, the confusion which accompanies those emotions inevitably hampers one’s ability to resolve conflict. A key idea to remember is this: as much we would like to put it in the past, trauma does not just go away. As one clever writer has phrased it, emotions are not biodegradable. It is also important to note that psychological trauma is not just one thing. It can be a single event, or it can be an ongoing situation or a series of events. Further, the resulting distress may be constant or intermittent.
The distress includes the following, all of which can block the ability to handle conflict effectively:
- Painful emotions
- Frightening memories, nightmares and flashbacks
- Disturbing and intrusive thoughts
- Distorted beliefs
- Self-defeating habits
- Automatic physical reactions and negative thoughts
- An ongoing sense of dread
- Instant hyperarousal
- Extreme watchfulness for signs of danger (hypervigilance)
- Toxic relationships
- Anxiety, depression and anger, apathy and emotional numbing
- Loss of awareness of the here and now
- Physical health problems
- Avoidance of trauma reminders (drugs and alcohol for example)
The spouse of a trauma survivor, particularly one suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), must exercise patience and understanding of the unique problems with which the survivor is grappling. It is absolutely essential that both the survivor and the spouse, children and extended family, if that is deemed appropriate, know that psychological trauma changes the workings of the brain. The brain of a traumatized person slips quickly into the state called, “fight-flight-freeze.” Fortunately, solid research over many years has proved beyond a doubt that healing is possible. Furthermore, that a number of proven-effective approaches are available. Some of these approaches include the use of cranial electrical stimulation CES) – as delivered by the Alpha-Stim device – Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR) and Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT). Other options do exist, and the reader is encouraged to seek them out. There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all therapy.
One way to locate a trauma specialist in your area is to contact the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation (ISST-D) on their website: www.isst-d.org. I strongly urge you only to work with a licensed therapist who has been trained in an evidence-based therapies, such as the ones mentioned above.
Does conflict bother you, worry you or scare you? Do you and your spouse, partner or child go round and round and never get anywhere? Have you had enough of that nonsense?
We have all heard the saying, “it’s a jungle out there.” For all too many people, relationships feel dark and threatening, and it seems the light has disappeared forever. Would it not be wonderful if that jungle could be transformed into a sunlit garden?
If the answer is yes, here is one fact that you should know, right now. Avoiding conflict, which most humans are conditioned to do, is not always the answer.
Habitual avoidance of conflict is a major cause of relationship failure. While it is true that certain conflicts should be avoided, others require attention. The trick is to distinguish one from the other.
This work is meant to help you feel confident and strong, so you never again avoid conflicts… that is, in those cases when the conflict should be addressed.
Now, unfortunately, humans do not intuitively handle conflict very well, and precious few of us are shown a healthy example by our parents. If we are wise, we can be proactive and learn the skills that get us to talk, listen and stay “cool” when conflict erupts. Oftentimes, this requires a change in attitude and behavior.
It is normal for change to feel uncomfortable but hang in there. Actually, you probably already know how to do that. You didn’t give up the bicycle the first time you fell off, did you? Applying the skills and insights contained here will help you make the changes easier than you expected.
When you change just one behavior or attitude, you will build on that change. With every success you will be more and more comfortable addressing conflicts directly, rather than avoiding them.
All anecdotes are based on actual cases, and all the names are fabricated, as you will soon notice. Some chapters offer conflict resolution tips while others do not. There is a reason for this. If you are motivated enough, you will go looking for answers yourselves. And when you uncover the answers – they are not hard to find – the changes you make are more likely to persist.
Check out books, audios, videos and the internet. In this day and age, anyone who can read can search out solutions in addition to what is provided here.
The Foundation of This Work
“The words of the reckless pierce like swords, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” – Proverbs 12: 18
Proven treatment methods form the basis of this book. We know that neuroplasticity is a reality. That is, in most cases, the mind can be ‘re-wired’ at any stage of life. Thus, there is hope for people who think they cannot change. We also know that behavior, mind, body and emotions are all interconnected. When one of them changes, the others can change, as well.
But the scientific foundation is just part of the story.
As a believer in the God of the Bible, biblical principles have also influenced this work. Additional influences include teachings from other legitimate religions. Some of them emphasize mindfulness, compassion, gratitude, letting go and acceptance. Native American cultures teach us to cherish the natural world given to us by the Great Spirit. Other religions encourage us to honor the divine nature within each person. Interestingly, modern science often agrees.
A University of California study reports that people who carry an ‘attitude of gratitude’ enjoy a quality of life superior to people who do not. This teaching appeared in New Testament Scripture nearly two thousand years ago (See Philippians, chapter. 4:8). Transcendental Meditation, which originated thousands of years ago, was proven beneficial in numerous ways by Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard University’s College of Medicine. The same is true of mindfulness meditation, which is now recommended by many physicians for help with healing.
Having worked with countless couples of varied races, ethnicities and religions, one thing has stood out: couples who share a faith usually resolve conflict better than people who do not. Why? A faith-based life helps us focus on what we do have, rather than on what we are missing.
As you learn to handle conflict effectively, consider the possibility that a divine dimension does exist. Adding it to your life could bless you in ways you may have not yet experienced.
Plato, the ancient Greek philosopher, defines wisdom as “the conjunction of knowledge and virtue.” The beauty of the healing which is provided by prayer and meditation – possibly the most effective of all stress management strategies – is that these practices also open doors to wisdom and peace.
I invite you to discover whether that is true for you.
Let’s get started.
A Two-Part Approach to Resolving Conflict
The Short-Term Approach: Coping with Conflict
If you attended public school in the United States, you took part in monthly fire drills. At the sound of the bell or buzzer, you and your fellow students knew what to do. And the staff followed the directions of the emergency manager. Everyone was trained by this regular procedure to act in an orderly way.
You may also remember that fire extinguishers were placed on the walls throughout the school — in the cafeteria, the kitchen, the hallways, the science lab, etc.
What if your school never practiced fire drills, and one fine day, you smelled smoke and heard the buzzer? Chaos might ensue: running, shoving, general confusion and even injuries.
The monthly fire drill – which is actually a kind of conflict management strategy – prepared us to react correctly, thus reducing the likelihood of turmoil.
Additionally, in the event of a fire, we also need to know how to put it out. Hence, the fire extinguisher. That is how we cope with the emergency as it is happening.
We need to draw from both approaches. Through managing – the continuous training of good habits, right thinking and lifestyle choices – we are able to respond to conflict with increased ease. Coping – drawing from skills and knowledge to de-escalate – helps us settle a conflict as it is taking place.
The Short-Term Approach consists of five proven-effective communication and conflict resolution skills. As you use them, remember the following key principles:
- In moments that matter, you must slow down the communication process. As you speak, take time to notice the other person’s reactions. More importantly, after the other person has spoken, take time before you respond.
- Do not provoke a negative reaction from the other person. Such reactions include defensiveness, shutting down and lashing out with criticism or disrespect.
- Emotional self-regulation is essential. Do not attempt to handle a conflict or talk about an important matter when you are upset. At such times, the following skills are not usable. The Long-Term Approach describes how to restore relaxation and balance.
Reading this section, imagine a fictional couple, Sam and Julie, who cannot seem to stop arguing.
The Five-Second Rule
When Sam or Julie senses that an argument is about to erupt, one or both of them will say or signal to the other to use the 5 second rule, which operates like this:
Sam talks, Julie listens. Julie gives Sam her full attention. There is no multitasking, no interrupting. She does not react in any way – no eye rolls, no sighs and no gestures, except to nod and let him know she is listening. If Julie hears something she wants to reply to, and she believes she may forget, she jots down a quick note. If Sam says something that is false or upsetting, she takes a deep breath to calm herself and keeps listening. When Sam is done talking, Julie waits for up to five seconds. In that time, she takes a deep breath before responding.
Next, Julie speaks. Sam listens calmly, just as Julie did. And this is how the plan unfolds until they believe they have cooled off and can start talking casually again.
When practiced with patience, this exercise can help to rid you of bad communication habits, such as over-reacting, preparing your answer and interrupting.
The Reflecting Statement
Now, after using the 5-Second Rule, what is the best way to respond?
During an argument, clear communication is vital. To promote a respectful conversation, Sam and Julie will be wise to communicate two important things to each other:
First, “I heard you.”
Second, “I want to understand you.”
In order to do that, they will reflect, or ‘mirror’ what the other person said. When Julie is finished talking, Sam might say something like:
“I want to be sure I’m understanding you. It sounds like you’re saying, _______________________________________________, Did I get that right?”
Sam might repeat her words exactly or paraphrase them. The purpose of this exercise is to assure her that he cares enough to hear her out and that he wants to understand her – without judging, criticizing, or defending himself. This is a powerful technique. Add it to the 5-second rule and notice the benefits.
Stop ◆ Breath ◆ Re-Think
This third tool is another way of helping Sam and Julie respond calmly and thoughtfully when either of them feels triggered.
First and foremost, they must learn to stop the instant defensive responses. This is accomplished by first sensing that they have been triggered. Usually, this involves a physical sensation: a knot in the stomach, a tense jaw, clenched fist, tightness in the chest or burning ears. Such sensations cue them to do something to interrupt the stress response and move into the relaxation response. Sam might wear a rubber band around his wrist, which he snaps the moment he senses that he has been triggered. He might prefer instead to visualize a large STOP sign or smack himself on the forehead – but not too hard!
This is the STOP part of it. You know yourself. What physical STOP signal would work for you?
Secondly, the person who has been triggered takes a deep breath. Breathing deeply cuts short the stress response and activates the relaxation response. This is the BREATHING part of it.
Thirdly, re-think what just happened. After stopping the reaction and taking a deep breath, we can think clearly. And only when we are thinking clearly can we positively re-think or re-spin what the other person said or did.
Here are some examples of thoughts that will help to re-think a negative reaction:
- Am I jumping to a conclusion?
- Am I assuming?
- Did she/he really mean that the way I think she/he did?
- Is this a battle I need to fight?
- Maybe I should ask for clarification.
- Did I do or say something to trigger her/him?
- Maybe she/he’s upset with something I don’t know about.
- How can I help her/him?
Do not judge or second-guess yourself with questions like, “Am I being petty or selfish?” Simply redefine what just happened after you have moved into the relaxation response. The more you do this, the more you will appreciate the benefits.
The Limited Time-Out
Arguments can escalate to a boiling point in seconds. Whenever you notice that emotions have taken over, stop talking and tell the other person you need a break. Tell him/her how much time you need and that you will be ready to talk again after you have calmed down. Literally, tell the other person something such as, “I need a half-hour. I’m going for a walk (or whatever you need to do) and I will be back and ready to talk again at _______ o’clock.”
Communicating how much time you need in order to settle down reassures the other person that you are not giving up. Rather, you are demonstrating self-control. This is a powerful positive message. On the contrary, when you exhibit a lack of self-control, you damage trust.
The “I” Statement
Trust is the foundation of any close relationship, and mishandling conflict breaks trust. Fortunately, trust can be regained. One sure way to regain trust is to show the other person that you mean them no harm. Never point out the other person’s bad behavior. Allow yourself to be vulnerable and let the other person see and hear your vulnerability. Take off your emotional armor, let down your guard and be honest about what you feel. This can be risky if the other person is in an agitated emotional state. Wait until you are both calm and relaxed and then use the skill you are about to learn.
The “I” Statement helps to express upsets without provoking defensiveness. This approach works. This is simply a statement about what you are feeling emotionally; no judging, attacking, accusing, blaming or threatening.
At first, this may feel unnatural. Do not let this deter you. Throughout your life you have had to undertake things that did not necessarily feel natural. Much like learning to talk, walk or ride a bike, if you use this skill faithfully and correctly, you will begin to notice the benefits soon enough.
Stating your feelings honestly invites the other person to respond with his or her feelings. In addition, the other person will have to state whether he or she cares about how you really feel. This skill helps prepare the way for harmonious problem-solving.
When to use the “I” statement:
When logic and reason and not your emotions are in control, “I” statements are most effectively used at an appropriate time and place. What would be the appropriate time and place? We may want to omit that part of the sentence.
Why to use it:
The “I” statement is a brief and simple way to express what you feel emotionally. When used correctly, it will not provoke defensiveness.
DO NOT USE THIS SKILL:
- To de-escalate a heated conflict.
- To judge or evaluate others or to express an opinion or belief.
- To describe or define what the other person “wants” or “cares about.”
After expressing the emotion by saying “I felt” or “I feel”, DO NOT ADD “like” or “that”.
Incorrect: “I feel like you’re trying to hide something from me.”
Correct: “When you don’t share our financial papers with me, I feel anxious.”
Incorrect: “I feel that your behavior at Thanksgiving dinner was atrocious.”
Correct: “When you raised your voice during Thanksgiving dinner, I felt embarrassed.”
Hint 1: If you can substitute the words, “I think” in place of “I feel that” or “I feel like” and the sentence still makes sense, you are using this technique incorrectly. For example, if you were to say, ‘I feel like you are trying to avoid talking’, you could just as well say ‘I think you are trying to avoid taking’. You can see that it still makes sense. If you are assuming the other person is trying to avoid talking, you are already making the error of assuming.
Hint 2: If the other person reacts defensively, it is possible that you did not really express an emotion, unless the other person is just plain mean-spirited. Those people do exist.
Why does the “I” statement work? Remember Sam and Julie? Imagine that they are arguing, and Sam uses the “I” statement to say what he is truly feeling. Julie has two options. Either she cares how he feels, or she does not. The beauty of this way of communicating is that it creates a softer landing, so to speak, for the message you are trying to send. It is neither harsh nor threatening. Done correctly, it will not provoke defensiveness.
As you use these skills, you will notice that people will respond more positively than you expected. This will reinforce your motivation to turn these skills into healthy habits.
Finally, please remember that this skill is available only when you are in a calm and balanced mind-body state.
Robert Kallus is a licensed psychotherapist, who lives and works in Valparaiso, Indiana. This article is an excerpt from his book, You Can Work It Out! The book will soon be available for purchase on Amazon.