Dealing With Conflict

John Gottman, a researcher at the University of Washington and the author of The Relationship Cure, has studied married couples for over 25 years. He discovered that when two people argue, the content of their argument is pretty much irrelevant. The most important aspect of a conflict is the process the two people are using to communicate.

If you think about it, this is really the opposite of what we normally consider important during an argument. When you're in the middle of it, the content — the actual topic of your argument — seems to be the most important part of the discussion.

Let me be extra clear about this. When Richard and Kim argue about whether or not to use spanking as a punishment for their child, whether or not Richard is right or uses sound reasoning is not as important as how much he interrupts Kim.

The process, the way you argue will determine how well the issue is resolved. Focus more on the way you argue than on what you're arguing about. Specifically, if you conduct your argument in the way described below, a conflict can be resolved quickly and with minimal hurt feelings.

1. Listen without interrupting. During an argument it is natural to interrupt. But people need to be able to finish their sentences. People need to be heard and understood. When they're not, they tend to get frustrated. Resolutions then become more difficult to achieve.

2. Acknowledge the good. During a conflict, it is fairly common to ignore anything positive. But you do appreciate a great deal about the person you are talking with, and some of what you appreciate is relevant to the topic you're discussing. And the two of you do in fact have many points of agreement. It's helpful to acknowledge those during the argument. It helps keep emotions from escalating, and it keeps your own point of view from becoming too narrowly one-sided.

3. Turn criticisms into requests before they leave your mouth. Instead of mentioning what the other person has done wrong (inciting defensiveness), talk about what you would like the person to do in the future. You're basically saying the same thing but in a less painful, more constructive way. A nice clean request is something real to deal with, something out in the future that can be promised. Things in that past are already done. They are final. And talking about them usually only produces regret, shame, defensiveness, or depression. None of these are productive emotions. A sincere request often produces determination to fulfill it — a very productive emotion.

Follow these three guidelines and your argument can move (relatively) painlessly toward resolution, regardless of whether the content of your discussion is keeping the toothpaste cap on the tube or getting a divorce. Concentrate on good process and it will see you through.

We need rules to follow during conflict. In our courtrooms, in congress, even in business meetings, they have rules. Most organizations use Robert's Rules of Order. These are the parameters within which the discussion can take place, and it allows progress to be made. Otherwise, whenever conflict is taking place, which it does often in those contexts, things would quickly devolve into shouting matches. They have rules to prevent that. And that's what you need in your close relationships: Rules of order. It allows progress to be made.

conflicting points of view

In a study by researchers at Ohio State University, 90 newly-married couples were asked to discuss the most important subjects about which they disagreed. Later, the researchers watched videotapes of these discussions and rated their arguing style on measures of positive or negative behaviors. In the positive range, they looked for:

  • agreeing with spouse's point
  • accepting responsibility
  • suggesting a compromise

On the negative end, they looked for:

  • withdrawing
  • blaming
  • criticizing

Before and after the discussion, levels of immune function and blood pressure were measured. The immune function dropped in everyone some, but for those with the negative arguing style, it dropped considerably more. Blood pressure increased more for the negative fighters too.

This divides arguing behaviors into two kinds: positive and negative. The positive behaviors are productive, help the situation move toward resolution, and produce less anger and defensiveness. The negative behaviors are destructive, move the situation away from resolution, and produce more anger and defensiveness. To make things go better in an argument, simply resist the temptation to do the negative ones and try to do more of the positive ones.

Heated arguments with your spouse are not merely miserable; they are bad for your health. Researchers took a hundred married people with mild hypertension and over a period of three years they gave them questionnaires about their relationships. For those in good marriages, their blood pressure went down. For those in bad marriages, their blood pressure readings increased over the three years.

Swedish researchers took three hundred women who had been hospitalized for chest pains or heart attacks and did a follow up study on them five years after the hospitalization. Those who were having serious trouble in their marriages were three times more likely to have a second serious heart episode than people who didn't have much upset in their marriage.

A virologist, Ronald Glaser, PhD, an endocrinologist, William Malarkey, MD, and a psychologist, Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, PhD, screened thousands of newlyweds to find ninety couples with perfect records of mental and physical health, and then after a thirty-minute discussion with each couple as they tried to resolve problems related to money, in-laws, or leisure time, the researchers took blood samples. The more "negative fighting behavior" the couples had, the less active their immune system was, as measured by certain clear indicators like natural killer cells that fight tumors and viruses.

The negative fighting behavior the researchers noted included sarcasm, dismissal, disapproval, and general nastiness.

For more motivation to change the way you fight, a study at the University of Washington has shown that when parents attack each others' belief systems — when they are hostile toward each other, when they attack each others' character and feelings — children suffer. Kids whose parents fought that way showed more antisocial behavior. They are psychologically less healthy.

So remember, in an argument, focus on process, not the content of the argument. Focus on these three:

  1. Listen without interrupting.
  2. Acknowledge the good.
  3. Turn criticisms into requests.

And when you are discussing something with someone who has a conflicting point of view:

Positive arguing behaviors (do more of these):

  • Suggesting a compromise
  • Accepting responsibility
  • Agreeing with a point

Negative arguing behaviors (do less of these):

  • Blaming
  • Criticizing
  • Withdrawing
Adam Khan is the author of Slotralogy and co-author with Klassy Evans of What Difference Does It Make?: How the Sexes Differ and What You Can Do About It.

No comments:

Post a Comment