Living in a digital age means that many of our social interactions are done online. However, reaching out and connecting with those around us is paramount, and even more so, with tough conversations. Ahead, experts share insights to help us navigate.
Fight, disagreement, argument, dispute, quarrel, squabble… Whatever you want to call it, relationship conflict is an almost inevitable part of being human. Having different experiences, viewpoints, and opinions mean that things aren’t always going to be smooth-sailing with our friends, families and intimate partners, but knowing how to navigate the storms can make all the difference.
When something has upset you, it’s important to voice it, rather than let the problem and your feelings simmer. What’s most important is how you go about expressing it. Dr Rachel Low, who studies relationship conflict, says that the best way to address conflict is to use direct and open communication.
The first step is making sure you’re in a positive, calm and open headspace, and that you know what you want to say to the other person.
“Take a step back and see what the thing is that you’re unhappy with. Once you have a clear idea of what you want to change, sit down and have a direct, open conversation.”
Sending an email or a text can be tempting, especially if you struggle with confrontation and talking openly about your feelings. Still, it’s always better to find time to sit down face to face to ensure that the context and tone of voice are not misinterpreted.
In terms of different communication strategies during conflict, she outlines that there are two dimensions. Communication can either be direct or indirect, and it is either positive or negative. Direct-positive communication involves things like praise and problem-solving, while direct-negative involves criticism, interrogation and anger. Indirect-positive behaviours are when people try to minimise the problem by brushing it off or using humour to make light of the situation. Indirect-negative behaviours are more passive-aggressive, sending negative signals to try and communicate unhappiness in a relationship or make the other person feel bad.
“A lot of research has looked at how each of these different types of behaviour predicts whether the conflict is resolved. I think people would assume that the direct-negative approach would be bad, but actually, the research shows that it can be beneficial in some situations,” says Rachel.
“It can be bad when it’s a minor problem, but if it’s a serious problem, communicating your anger can actually be good, because you’re signalling to the other party that something is not okay, that you’re committed in the relationship and that you want something to change. In a nutshell, direct communication is best, whether negative or positive.”
So what should we say? During a conflict, it is common for people to use blaming phrases, such as “You really hurt me” or “How could you do this to me?” Rachel refers to this as guilt induction, where you are trying to make the other person feel guilty. Research shows that while this can generate behaviour change in the short term, it is deeply damaging in the long run.
“The end goal is to resolve the conflict so that you can move forward,” she says, and suggests a non-blaming and solution-focused approach. “You need to talk about the problem, but the trick is not to dwell on it. ‘This is what has happened, I am feeling this, and you are feeling that, so what can we do?’”
THE IMPORTANCE OF LISTENING
The dream scenario is that the other person understands where you’re coming from, apologises and is happy with your proposed solution. “In theory, you hope that all conversations can be calm and nice, but that’s not always how relationships work,” Rachel says. Chances are, the other person will want to express their own perspective and feelings too.
“One of the most important predictors to resolving relationship conflict is perceived understanding. Paying attention to what they are saying is important because they will feel like they are understood. During any conflict, people have different perspectives because there’s a clash of what you want. People try to get the other person to see their point of view, so one thing that is really important to communicate [to the other party] is, ‘I understand what you want, and I hear what you’re saying,’ which can be hard to do,” Rachel acknowledges.
Even with her extensive knowledge, Rachel isn’t immune to the discomfort that comes with having difficult conversations. It’s something that isn’t easy for anyone, and it is perfectly natural to feel an urge to leave or emotionally shut down. In difficult conversations, find the strength to stay present and engaged.
“One thing that is really damaging, and signals to whomever you’re talking to that you don’t care, is if you disengage from the conversation, walk out, or withdraw,” she says.
“Withdrawing doesn’t necessarily mean that you physically walk out of the room, it also happens when both people are sitting together. You can have a conversation, and while one person is talking, the other person is not engaging at all – ignoring the person or not actively listening. That’s not a good thing to do.”
Withdrawing might feel easy at that moment, but it can lead to lower relationship satisfaction, lower problem resolution and lower levels of happiness for both parties.
On the flip side, you can be silent, but stay very engaged, communicating through non-verbal cues, such as body language, eye contact and nodding.
“If you’re talking to me, I can be quiet, but I can be quiet while nodding and listening, versus being quiet and turned away or being on my phone. They communicate very different things. One is saying that I really care about what you say and I’m listening, even though I’m quiet. The other says, you are talking, but I don’t care.”
Anger and sadness often get a bad rap. When we experience these emotions, it is common to feel guilty or ashamed and want to get rid of them. Interestingly, Rachel says that people who suppress their feelings tend to report feeling less satisfied in their relationships.
“No emotions are inherently bad. They tell us that something is wrong. We experience negative emotions when there is a mismatch between what we want and what is happening outside, so they motivate us to do something about it. I think an important thing to remember when you’re feeling any of these emotions is not to be harsh on yourself.”
A yelling match isn’t likely to help you resolve the dispute. On the other hand, explaining how you feel to the other person is vital. “How you control your emotions when resolving conflict directly relates to whether it’s resolved. What our research shows is that when you’re experiencing conflict, suppressing your emotions is not helpful because you’re interrupting what you’re trying to communicate. If you’re angry, and suppress your emotions, you’re not communicating what you need from your partner.” The key is to explain what you’re feeling, then focus on finding a solution and move forward.
If pushing your feelings away is normal for you, adopting a curious approach can be a good place to start. “From the mindfulness research, if people can try to take a non-judgemental stance and just accept the emotion, that’s a good first step: just noticing, ‘I’m feeling angry’. When you’re feeling sad or angry, ask yourself why you’re feeling like that as opposed to pushing it down. That’s an internal first step that can help before talking to the other person.”
Rachel’s Exercise For Couples To Try
In a study with 120 couples over two years, completing a simple 21-minute writing exercise has shown to reduce conflict, reduce personal distress, increase understanding and prevent a decline in marriage satiswfaction.
1. Think about the last significant argument you had. Write on paper for seven minutes, explaining the argument from the perspective of a neutral third-party who just wants the best for everyone.
2. For the next seven minutes, write about what obstacles you would face when trying to adopt this neutral perspective.
3. For the last seven minutes, write about how you would overcome those obstacles.
■ Be curious about your feelings and ask yourself why you’re feeling the way you do.
■ Resolve the conflict in person, rather than over email or text.
■ Before the conversation, understand what you want to communicate, how you feel and possible ways to solve the problem.
■ Communicate directly and clearly.
■ Put your phone away.
■ Listen to what the other person has to say and try to see it from their point of view.
■ Use body language, nodding and eye contact to affirm that you are listening.
■ Focus on finding a solution and moving forward.
■ Let a problem simmer.
■ Ignore or suppress your uncomfortable feelings; they are important signals that something is wrong or needs to change.
■ Dwell on the issue and ruminate over what has already happened.
■ Focus on blaming the other person or try to make them feel guilty.
■ Leave the room, be on your phone or emotionally withdraw during the conversation.