RESPONDING TO CONFLICT WITH EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE
William C. Shearer Ph.D., M.B.A., M.P.H.
Robin L. Shearer M.A., M.P.H., R.N., M.F.T.
Imagine responding to conflict with confidence, strength, and a clear sense of direction and purpose. Visualize conflict as an opportunity to build relationships, something to be welcomed rather than feared and avoided.
Few can hear the word "conflict" without an emotional reaction, a reaction often conditioned by painful and costly experiences. Usually such experiences go back to childhood and learned beliefs that made anger and conflict seem dangerous.
Attitudes toward anger and conflict are shaped early in life by messages we hear from family and others. We hear things such as "Button your lip," "Turn the other cheek," "Fighting won’t solve anything," "Don’t be selfish," "Keep your opinions to yourself," "Children are to be seen and not heard," and " Go to your room!" What messages did you hear? Most people learn that conflict is unpleasant, even dangerous. Some learn that they must fight back at all costs. Others learn to avoid or clam up. Most of us learn that anger and conflict are wrong.
No matter what we do in our clinical practice we find ourselves dealing with our clients' attitudes toward conflict and their difficulties responding to conflict in a confident and positive way. When we facilitate anxiety groups or eating disorder groups we find extreme discomfort with anger and conflict is a common denominator among group members.
In group therapy for panic disorder our clients often have a visceral reaction, telling us of feeling ill while watching a short segment of videotape depicting a couple in heated verbal conflict. Whenever we encounter someone who is having panic attacks, one of the first questions we ask is "what do you do with your anger?" The usual response is that anger is something that causes such extreme discomfort that it is avoided altogether.
The major reason why couples come to us for couples therapy is their difficulty in dealing with conflict. Because of old tapes from childhood or past relationships , they see conflict as wrong and their partner as dangerous. They perceive a "win-lose" situation where there can be only one winner. No one wants to be the loser. Avoiding losing means choosing self protection through controlling behaviors, compliance, or indifference. Each party avoids taking responsibility for their part of the conflict, instead seeing the other as "the problem."
In divorce mediation work we find many couples locked in a bitter struggle that may go on for years. For most, divorce is a nightmare. It's an adversarial situation where couples who once loved one another seem destined to stay connected through fear, distrust, and anger. Costs in time, energy, money, and emotional distress may seem overwhelming. There are usually no winners and children may be hurt the most.
Couples who lacked the ability to deal effectively with conflict during their marriage, now continue to hurt one another largely out of an ongoing lack of conflict management and conflict resolution skills. If children are involved, an ongoing cooperative relationship between parents is vital. How can highly conflicted couples who couldn't manage conflict in their marriage have such skills during and after their divorce?
Learned attitudes toward conflict affect families, couples and people in a work setting. Our organizational development work is focused on team building and conflict management training. The most common reason our services are requested by an organization is conflict that has become so disruptive that morale, cohesiveness, and productivity are jeopardized.
Difficulties with conflict pervade almost all of our work and seem to be central to most of our clients' problems. Much of our work over the past ten years has been the development and presentation of conflict management and conflict resolution programs. The process for responding to conflict that we teach is a process we call "intentional relating."
What is intentional relating? It's a way of relating to others developed through learning specific skills and practicing those skills until they become conscious, intentional, and routine. It's a way of relating that involves making a shift from being closed and defensive, to being open and willing to learn. It means having the ability to calm down, slow down, relax, give up having to be right, give up having to win, give up needing a quick fix. It means tuning into your partner with empathy and understanding. It means having the skill to get the other person to stop being defensive, instead having a willingness to open up to you and work with you toward a collaborative solution.
What is the opposite of intentional relating? It's hit-or-miss, haphazard, often unconscious, flying by the seat of your pants reacting. It's what happens when you perceive conflict as dangerous and choose to respond defensively. It's closing down and resisting hearing what the other has to say. It's not taking responsibility for your part in the dispute. It's behaving in a way that virtually insures the other person will react in a similar manner or avoid you altogether. In any event, the dispute will not be resolved and your relationship may be damaged. Certainly warmth and trust are not being developed. An opportunity for personal and relationship growth is lost.
Our conflict management work whether with couples, divorcing or divorced partners, anxious or depressed clients, eating disordered clients, or organizations, centers around teaching five strategies. These "intentional relating" strategies are:
1. Adopt and maintain a conscious and intentional attitude.
2. Tune into your body and mind, and choose to make a shift.
3. Open up and put your cards (or agenda) on the table.
4. Tune into your partner.
5. Make it a priority to continue to learn and practice intentional relating skills.
The remainder of this newsletter consists of brief descriptions of each of the five strategies. Each strategy requires extensive time, energy, and practice before new patterns of behavior are firmly established.
STRATEGY 1: ADOPT AND MAINTAIN AN INTENTIONAL ATTITUDE
It would be impossible to develop or maintain conflict management skills without having what we call an "intentional attitude." This attitude conveys a profound respect for your partner's different needs and desires. It's an attitude based on the belief that the relationship is important and needs to be not only maintained but strengthened. It's an attitude that accepts responsibility for either contributing to the problem or the solution. It's an attitude that includes a belief that the best outcome to a dispute is a collaborative team effort. It's an attitude that sees conflict not as a danger to be defended against or avoided, but as an opportunity to build a relationship.
An intentional attitude is based on five principles:
A. Conflict is inevitable. It's going to occur whenever people are in relationship. That's because we're all different and it's okay for different people to want different things. Each of us has our own unique set of wants, desires, preferences, fears and goals. We each have our own unique awareness of the world around us. We have our own perceptions and memories. It is not a case of good guy vs. bad guy so much as the need for parties in a dispute to acknowledge and respect differences, and choose a process that is cooperative rather than avoidant, agressive, threatening, or competitive.
B. The choice in response to conflict is what matters. Conflict is neither good or bad. It's simply a fact of life. The important thing is not whether conflict exists, but rather the response. There are two choices: a defensive or avoidant response, or openness and a willingness to learn.
C. The other person's needs are valid. Often the thing that most undermines a relationship is trying to figure out who has a more valid argument. Trying to invalidate the other person's needs is almost sure to cause a defensive reaction and lead to a breakdown in communication. The easiest way to move beyond this impasse is to hold fast to the principal that both your needs and your partner's needs are equally legitimate and important.
D. It only takes one person to change an interaction. At any point in a dispute either party can choose to shift away from defensiveness toward intentional relating. By doing so, they make it much more likely that the other person will respond with less defensiveness and more openness.
E. Conflict resolution requires partners, not adversaries. In an adversarial situation there are winners and losers, often only losers if a valued relationship is damaged. To build and deepen a relationship conflict must be viewed as a problem both partners must solve. The fifth principal of intentional relating is that the best solutions usually result from a collaborative team effort.
STRATEGY 2: TUNE INTO YOUR BODY, AND MIND, AND CHOOSE TO MAKE A SHIFT
We like the phrase "up-tight." It is one of the most descriptive phrases in the English language. When you're up-tight you're carrying all of your tension in your upper chest, shoulders, neck and head. You tend to breathe shallowly, even hyperventilating when under sufficient stress. If you're prone to stress headaches this is how they begin.
When you're up-tight it's almost impossible to respond non-defensively unless you first tune into and change your inner state. Recognize your tension and change your breathing pattern. Visualize moving your center from your upper chest to your abdomen. Begin to breathe from your diaphragm. If you've had voice lessons you probably already know how to do this. If not, you probably need practice
Breathing diaphragmatically is the easiest and quickest way to relax yourself. If you've never done this before, place one hand over your chest and one hand on your abdomen just below your belly button. Now practice breathing in such a way that the only hand moving with your breathing is the hand over your abdomen as the movement of your diaphragm causes your abdominal wall to move in and out. It may take some practice but it's well worth it. You will discover an instant self-calming skill you can use whenever you catch yourself being up-tight.
Once your breathing pattern has changed, it now becomes possible to calm down, slow down, relax and choose to make the all-important shift. Such a shift is not likely to happen without self-calming.
Two more steps are necessary before the shift is complete. The first step involves an awareness of what's going on in your head. Do your thoughts during disputes generate increased calm, or do they serve to arouse and maintain your distress and adversarial attitude? Consider for example the following self-distressing and conflict-perpetuating thoughts:
" He’s not going to get away with this. I'll get him back."
" I don't dare say what I really think. I can't risk her getting angry."
" I'm right. He should just accept my point of view."
" She just wants to push me around. She always thinks she can have it her way."
" He's always such a jerk"
Examples of self-calming thoughts that lead to a more effective response are as follows:
"She has her own point of view. I need to hear her thoughts."
"This relationship is important. We both need to feel heard and understood."
" We need to find a win-win solution."
"We have a problem. We can only solve it as a team, as partners."
"We see things differently. It's important that we understand each other."
The final step completes the shift and is the essence of intentional relating. Simply put, be willing to be influenced by the other. This step cannot be over-emphasized. Unless there is a willingness to open up and learn from one another, a willingness to be influenced, there can be no relationship. In studies of marital relationships it has been found that those who were unwilling to be influenced by their partner were doomed to fail in their marriage. The same is true of any relational dispute. If there's any chance of conflict resolution each party must be open to hearing and considering what the other has to say.
STRATEGY 3: OPEN UP AND PUT YOUR CARDS ON THE TABLE
This strategy involves honest, assertive communication. It takes you right to the heart of the issue as you disclose information about yourself, particularly your feelings and wants. It's a focus on your own unique awareness of the issue and involves willingness to express your complete truth. Rather than a defensive posture, this strategy allows you to channel your energy into positive change, inviting your partner to do the same.
The strategy is often difficult as it involves risks. There may be fears of rejection, abandonment, or a nasty argument. For many it's a matter of assertiveness training, gradually building skill and confidence. The fears are usually groundless. The truth is that others will generally like you and respect you more if you are assertive and self -disclosing. In discussing a difficult subject a straightforward approach often leads to a collaborative outcome.
Sherod and Phyllis Miller, a Colorado couple specializing in communicatios programs, have developed an excellent skill building program called CORE COMMUNICATION, a program we have utilized for several years with great success. Part of the program deals with what the Millers call "straight talk," a communication style that is the equivalent of STRATEGY 3. The Millers describe specific straight talk behaviors. The following are 11 of those behaviors to which we have added typical examples:
1. Dealing with the issue: "That is my perception of what's going on."
2. Identifying tension: "I'm feeling angry right now and beneath that I'm feeling scared."
3. Acknowledging differences: "We seem to be pretty far apart on this point but I do want to hear your point of view."
4. Requesting feedback: "Can you tell me why you stopped trying to work with me on this issue?"
5. Giving feedback: "I've noticed that you want to change the subject each time I mention Sally."
6. Expressing appreciation: "I really appreciate you wanting to talk to me about this. Your involvement is helping me deal with a very difficult decision."
7. Revealing impact/sharing vulnerability: I know we're both candidates for the same promotion and I guess that makes it difficult for me to share information with you."
8. Taking responsibility for your own contributions/response: " Sometimes when I should be listening to you, I find my mind wandering to the financial issues."
9. Asking for change: "When you come home late without calling me, I feel worried and angry. I'd really like you to call me if you're going to be late. Will you do that for me?"
10. Apologizing: "I don't think I've been giving you sufficient credit for your efforts toward finding a way for us to work together. I'm sorry for that."
11. Giving support: " I will stand behind you 100 percent!"
Each of these behaviors constitutes a powerful verbal skill for moving a conflict toward resolution. For example, when the other person’s anger is a way of striking back in response to a perceived hurt, apologizing can open things up and detoxify the situation.
A straightforward, assertive, respectful approach in which you're sharing more of yourself often leads your partner to do the same. Certainly you increase the his or her choices for constructive responding. Disclosure leads to disclosure and in turn, new understanding, relationship satisfaction, and conflict resolution.
STRATEGY:4 TUNE INTO YOUR PARTNER
This step doesn't have to follow STRATEGY 3. The order could be reversed or the strategies could be implemented simultaneously. At any point in the discussion be willing to follow your partner's lead. Perhaps the quickest way to enter into a collaborative team effort is to begin letting the other person express his or her thoughts and feelings about an issue. It helps greatly to be willing to follow your partner’s awareness of the issue wherever that may lead.
This strategy involves putting your own concerns temporarily on the back burner. This is a chance to put yourself in the other person's shoes. Do this by following what the other is saying without evaluating or trying to control the conversation. You may not agree with what the other has to say. That's okay. It is not necessary to agree, only to understand. If understanding leads to empathy, great!
It may not always work but usually this strategy will reduce tension, create rapport, and build trust. It leads both partners to feel good about themselves and each other. It insures that information being gathered is more complete and accurate and this kind of listening earns the right to be heard.
The Millers in their program CORE COMMUNICATION discuss five specific listening skills. These are:
1. Attending-Looking, Listening, Tracking
2.Acknowledging the Other’s Experience
3. Inviting More Information
4. Summarizing to Ensure Accuracy
5.Asking Open Questions/Explorative Listening
Again, it's not necessary to wait to begin practicing STRATEGY 4. Tuning into your partner should be part of every exchange and begin whenever communication is initiated.
STRATEGY 5: MAKE IT A PRIORITY TO CONTINUE TO LEARN AND PRACTICE INTENTIONAL RELATING SKILLS
Relationship building is an ongoing job. We're assuming that your relationships are important to you, important enough for you to invest time and energy in building and maintaining positive relationships. We're assuming you'd like the power to transform conflict into conflict resolution and build stronger relationships. The message of this paper is you do have that power. You have the power to create a supportive communication climate that encourages others to work with you rather than against you.
We encourage you to become a relationship expert. Knowledge is readily available and abundant. We give our clients a reading list to help them be prepared for our intensive training sessions.
An article by Jack Gibb entitled Defensive Communication that appeared in the Journal of Communication back in 1961 helps us to summarize the kind of Intentional Relating skills that make or break a relationship. Gibb wrote about the difference between a defensive climate and a supportive climate.
Choosing the behaviors associated with a supportive climate greatly increases the likelihood that the other person will stop being defensive and join you in a collaborative team effort. The following chart lists both the defensive and supportive behaviors:
Remember, the goal is to get out of a defensive mode and talking more. The language on the left side of the chart leads to defensiveness and resistance. The language on the right side leads to openness and is conducive to a collaborative team effort. The following is a brief description of each of these terms:
Evaluation language implies a judgment of the other person. Description language simply describes what has been seen or heard without any judgment attached.
When anger levels are blocking communication, descriptive lanquage can help you de-escalate and move toward a cooperative exchange Comments such as "I see us getting louder and louder and more upset. We don’t seem to be getting anywhere. Can we back up and start over?"are more likely to be effective than evaluation statements such as "You’re impossible to talk to."
Control language implies what should be done while problem orientation language invites joint problem solving. A contol statement such as "Everything will be fine when you agree to do it my way," will probably produce a defensive response. A problem orientation statement such as "I’m aware that we have a problem. I really want us to work together on this" is far more likely to pay off.
Strategy language communicates that the speaker has a hidden agenda. It's communication that sounds rehearsed. Spontaneity language seems natural, receptive, flexible, and generated on the spot.
Strategy lanquage might sound like "It will take us 30 minutes to discuss what I see as the only important aspects of the case. On the receiving end would you feel welcome to fully discuss your viewpoint? Spontaneity lanquage on the other hand, could sound like "Two heads are always better than one. I’m interested in what we might come up with working together on this.
Neutral is not a positive term as used by Gibb. Neutral language is cold, detached, and has an absence of feeling. Empathy language carries full acknowledgement of feelings and greatly facilitates open communication.
How does it feel when you have feeings about an issue to be met by a response that communicates a lack of warmth , caring , or emotional connection? Frustrated? Hurt? Angry?
The word empathy originated with the Greek word empatheia and means entering into the feeling or spirit of another with appreciative perception or understanding. Statements such as "I have a hunch that you’re feeling attacked right now. Is that accurate?"can work like magic in helping the other feel understood and invited to share more.
Superiority language communicates to the listener that the speaker feel superior in some way. Equality language recognizes that situations and experiences are different and to be respected.
A husband who states "I’m the one with the paycheck so I should have the most say in how it’s spent" will probably not get a pleasant response from his partner. He’d be far more successful saying "This is a partnership. We need to be a team in managing our finances. We may not always agree but we need to hear each other."
Certainty is characterized by thoughts or statements such as "I know I'm right." Provisionalism on the other hand, is typified by statements such as "Maybe I don't have all the answers. I could be wrong. I might be missing something. I'd like to hear what you think."
We could go on for many pages describing language skills that will help you deal effectively with anger and conflict. There are skills to use when your partner is escalating in order to be heard ( empathy, validation ) , with the result that anger is defused. There are skills to get at underlying issues and skills to use when anger is escalating toward a potentially destructive or even violent exchange. Most importantly, there are skills that help you move from an unconscious, chaotic and defensive interaction to the power and skill of Intentional Relating.
Everything we’ve said presumes a relationship that you want to continue. If you are in such a relationship be aware that conflict is guaranteed because people are different. The pro-relationship choice is to learn and practice effective conflict resolution skills.
It's always seemed strange to us that people believe that relationships will take care of themselves without any special effort or real knowledge of how relationships work or why they fail. No one questions the need for driver’s education before getting behind the wheel of a car. Relationships however, are often left to chance. Intentional Relating is like driver’s education for relationships. No matter how good you are at relating, you can always do better. We believe that being in a relationship is important enough to invest time and energy in order to be good at it.
© 2005 William Carey Shearer Ph.D., M.B.A., M.P.H
Robin L. Shearer M.F.T., R.N., M.A., M.P.H.