By Dan Blair, marriage therapist and family counselor
It may take two to resolve conflict, but all each person can do, is control themselves instead of trying to change or control the other person. Have you noticed, trying to get the other person to agree with you in an argument often creates more resistance? Unresolved conflict can make you frustrated and even leave you feeling alone, inadequate, or rejected. This is why people are uncomfortable with disagreements, and they are willing to argue. People argue because they feel they need the other person to agree.
So what’s the problem? When fight or flight is involved in a discussion, either one person is trying to take good out of what you are saying, or put blame on what you are saying. Some are on a mission to be right, and to be right the other person has to be inferior. There’s a loss of trust as you think: is the other person there for me, or for themselves?
It’s very hard to not take the bait, to not get hooked by criticism defense cycles. Just because you are invited to an argument doesn’t mean you have to argue. Don’t be surprised if the point/counterpoint pattern of an argument creates more heat than light.
Boundaries are also needed to protect yourself from verbal abuse and bad communication patterns. Examples of the use of boundaries in the Bible can be found in Psalm 101 where it reads:
I refuse to take a second look
at corrupting people and degrading things.
I reject made-in-Canaan gods,
stay clear of contamination.
The crooked in heart keep their distance;
I refuse to shake hands with those who plan evil.
I put a gag on the gossip
who bad-mouths his neighbor;
I can’t stand
Instead, we can get help in creating our boundaries from healthy people. Psalm 101 goes on to say:
But I have my eye on salt-of-the-earth people—
they’re the ones I want working with me;
Men and women on the straight and narrow—
these are the ones I want at my side.
But no one who traffics in lies
gets a job with me; I have no patience with liars.
If the other person is willing to give your view and feelings equal regard, the next step is to set boundaries around what you feel and think, that you keep separate from the boundaries around what the other person feels and thinks. Humility would suggest that you can be honest about what you feel and think, even if you’re wrong. If you do think you’re wrong, it’s good to admit it. Either way, separate what you feel and think from what the other person feels and thinks. Otherwise you take what they are saying personally. If they are crossing a boundary, disengage until a later time. Don’t forget, your power is in self-control, not controlling someone else, so don’t depend on the other to disengage. If the other person is abusive, or stuck in a criticism defense pattern, you can put some distance between yourself and the problem. Don’t re-engage unless the other person is willing to treat you the way you’re treating them.
There are a different ways to make a connection with another person while keeping your own boundaries. One would be making a summary statement about what the other person is feeling and believing, and balancing it with a summary of what you feel and believe. This means feelings on both sides count. Watch out for competition between who is right and who is wrong. Although, you may have to go deeper than that for strong or painful feelings. In that case you could do a role reversal in which you enter into the experience of the other person, and instead of criticizing them, you defend them. You do not have to defend their behavior, but you can make sense of what someone is feeling without having to agree with it. Their feelings still count. If that is not enough, a third way to manage the conflict would be to have a discussion using the word “we” instead of the word “you.” Using the word “you” in a discussion is often critical and not a compliment. Using the word “we” creates shared responsibility. Instead of, “You always do that. You never listen to me.” Try, “When we fight, neither of us gets heard.”
After establishing equal regard for both sides, even if you disagree, you can now ask for what you want. Many have difficulty with this, because if all you can do is ask and not compel the person to do it, you may feel vulnerable. The other person may say “yes” but not follow through, or they may say “no.” So the temptation will be, let’s go back to arguing! Instead, understand what the feeling is behind their “no” answer, and think of options that may work. Even if no options work, arguing is still not the answer. People will either argue more, or appear to give in and agree, when they are actually giving up hope for conflict resolution. If no options work, each person has to be respect the disagreement, and use self-care. Most of the time however, between two people that care for eachother, a solution or compromise can be found.