Money. Politics. Chores. Restaurants.
Relationships offer countless conflicts, large and small, every day.
How we respond to those conflicts can determine not just the one decision being made, but whether you and your friend or partner find happiness in the relationship.
Unfortunately our arguments are almost always about larger things that the topic at hand. Often they are about our roles, our moods, and even our past experiences. Sometimes they are about power and control in the relationship.
Thus a discussion about how to spend an unexpected windfall becomes an argument about love and respect. A question about which movie to watch becomes a chance to retaliate for being asked to do a disproportionate number of chores around the house.
It is important to free ourselves from our natural tendencies to “win” these conversations, or to “avoid” them. Neither one of those approaches is a healthy way to resolve conflict.
Instead, follow these guidelines for creating a productive conflict. And remember, voicing your needs is not rude. And getting what you need, especially from a long-term relationship, is not selfish.
Clarify what you need and state it clearly
Perhaps a date night argument always erupts about where to eat and what movie to watch. Or there is some other regular event that triggers a hurt feelings.
Prepare for it in advance by being clear about what you want. Perhaps you have a taste for French fries, and that new Spike Lee movie is all your friends are talking about, and you really want to see it.
When the discussion starts, state your preferred outcome clearly.
Doing this is NOT dominating the conversation, it is making your desires clear to yourself and your partner.
How does this help? It is likely that your partner has some objectives too. Putting the information out front helps you develop a win/win situation.
Not stating this up front sets up a common scenario where the first person, secretly wanting French fries but not wanting to make waves says, “I don’t care where we eat.”
“Great!” Responds the other, who was really trying to decide between hamburgers and pizza, but happy to have a simple decision to make. “How about pizza?”
If all the information was available, a better solution could have been worked out.
Be polite. Speak about events, not the other person
In the car ride home, the husband recalled the conversation he and his wife had just finished with their son and daughter-in-law over dinner. “I think maybe you shouldn’t have mentioned their investment plan at that time,” he suggests. He felt that her comment had really created an awkward end to an otherwise excellent dinner.
“Why do you always do this?” She paused, tears forming in her eyes. “You know their plan to sell the house and live in a van is a stupid idea, yet you made me have to say it myself. You never have my back.”
Suddenly the husband is on the defensive when he was trying to be an ally. He also hated the idea, but had a different plan to approach the conversation.
However, by making statements about her husband that included “always” and “never,” she didn’t get the chance to find out he was on her side.
Of course, now he was angry too.
It is important to avoid turning a situation into a catastrophe. Or to say one action is evidence of a permanent flaw in your partner. It shuts down the chance for productive conversation.
A better solution follows.
Use “I” statements
In this argument, the concerned wife and mother could have expressed the same frustration in a different way. “I didn’t know what to say. All night I was expecting you to bring it up. It was too important to let go, so I felt I had to say something.”
Now she has expressed her feelings and left open the door to hear from her husband.
“Oh, yeah, I should have told you,” the husband could reply. “I think that their idea is awful. If we sit down with them and go over the finances, and ask the questions they have not yet asked, they will see it themselves.”
Now, allied, they could make a plan to move forward, and she could ask, “Will you please be clear about how you feel? I feel like I had to step up and take the unpopular position.”
By saying how she feels, she allows her husband to respond by problem-solving without having to defend or explain his own actions.
In this same conversation, progress could also have been made if either one of them had initiated the conversation with a question.
Husband: “Why did you bring up the van conversation at that time?”
Wife: “Why didn’t you say anything about their terrible ‘living in a van’ idea?”
Leading with curiosity starts the conversation with the assumption that you are partners.
He thought she was being rude, but she was being practical and not delaying important discussions.
She thought he was avoiding the conversation, but he was enjoying a pleasant dinner and looking to schedule unpleasant topics for another time.
Seeking to understand gives both of them a chance to see a different perspective and to design a more comprehensive team-based approach.
Stay positive and focused on best outcomes
By accusing her husband of “always” doing this, and “never” having her back, the wife strted a second argument. Her husband was now in the position of not just defending his actions in that moment, but for all of their relationship. Or even all of eternity!
That’s a lot to defend.
Even after a bad start to the conversation, either of them could have moved the conversation forward by focusing on a common goal.
“Do we agree that we don’t want them living in a van?”
“Yes. That’s a terrible idea.”
“Okay, so how do we tell them?”
“I think we help them see it for themselves.”
“What do you mean?”
From here, two partners can focus on problem-solving instead of defending their lifetime of love and care for each other, and their mutual concern for their son.
These strategies are not imaginary. Thousands of friends and couples have used them to improve their communication and deepen their cooperation and relationship.
Curious about how you can strengthen your relationships? Struggling to break out of playing a role, or falling into the same old arguments over and over again?
Talking to a trained therapist or counselor can help. Hit the red button and find a time that works for you to talk with Sakina and see how she can help you find the solutions that work for you.