Everybody has conflict. Period. Avoiding conflict will only create more feelings of resentment and bitterness towards the other person. So, is it a lose-lose situation? Do we either get our feelings hurt in a major blow out or sweep it under the rug to clean up later? Nope. But when we are in the situation, it’s really tough to stop and think rationally. If someone is yelling at me for being messy or “forgetting everything,” I don’t think my first reaction is to say “let’s take a minute to discuss why you feel that way.” Instead, I want to defend myself and it only escalates the problem. Why is that? Why can’t I just be calm in the situation? Well, because our brains just do not work like that, especially in adolescence. If you have (or are) a teenager who just can’t resist getting the last hurtful word in, or you are 20-something fighting with a partner, our hormones make it really tough to avoid lashing out.
Our brain has lots of little parts, and at the forefront we have our rational thinking capacity. This is what allows us to think clearly and avoid letting our emotions get the best of us. For example, when someone steps on our toe, we can bite our tongue (despite the anger and pain associated with their incredibly inconsiderate act…) and say “oh it’s fine!” But in conflict, as the conversation escalates, we tend to let the anger and hurt feelings take over. Have you ever retorted something to a rude comment and immediately bitten your tongue? Regretted that slightly-too-truthful insult you slung at your partner? When our hormones are fogging up our brain, whether we are angry, or sad, or just plain irritable, our rational thinking can completely shut off. And the next option for our brain to continue to function is to let our emotional capacity take charge. When we start acting purely based on emotions, we lose sight of rationality and “filtering” our words. To avoid this possibly offensive and regretful situation, there are some steps you can take.
- Retreat when you feel yourself losing your grip.
As soon as you feel your blood boiling and you are ready to unleash all feelings, excuse yourself for a bit. Ask the other person if you can revisit this subject in about 30 minutes. Take some time to yourself, write down how you feel, or tell yourself how you would advise a friend to react. It is important to gain perspective on the other person’s feelings. Why are they acting this way? How would I feel? Is there something else that could have spurred this on? Ask yourself what you want from the situation and how it can be best handled for the future of your relationship, not your current satisfaction.
- When you come back, gauge the other person’s reactivity.
Do they seem to have calmed down at all? If not, that’s okay. Just remember to keep your own cool as they explode. Listen to their words, wait until they are finished. As they finally settle down and say what they need to say, try not to take any of it personally. Don’t let it get your anger going again, just be rationally able to talk to them. When they are finished, ask if you can gain some understanding on the situation. This way, you can check yourself to be sure you aren’t just coming up with defenses to their accusations while they are talking. Really listen, this way you don’t miss anything they are attempting to communicate with you. If you don’t understand, always just ask.
- Watch how you frame your conversation.
Nothing is going to bring back the explosion like being patronizing or sarcastic. There are some ways to discipline your conversation, asking the questions to understand and repeating back what they said. This way you know you are on the same page, and if they are acting irrationally, they’ll hear it too. Then, when you feel you’ve gained understanding on the problem and want to offer your own complaints or desires, do it in a careful and graceful manner:
- State a fact. Example: You forgot to pick me up from soccer practice.
- How that made you feel. Example: I felt abandoned and afraid.
- Give your opinion (use an I-statement). Example: I think that is unfair to me.
- Express your need. Example: I need you to remember to pick me up from practice or let me know when you cannot.
Communicating everything without attacking the other person is key to discussing sticky situations. This is effective in conflict situations to keep you both calm and on the same page, hopefully leading to compromise or understanding on both parts.
So, next time things get a little heated, remember these three steps to avoid throwing blow dryers or bring up how much you can’t stand someone’s mother. Stop and regroup, look at the other person’s demeanor without letting it upset you, and listen to what they have to say. As soon as they’ve gotten it all out, it’s your turn to refocus the argument into a rational and beneficial conversation.
Pearson, Marline. “Take A Break Strategy.” Relationship Smarts Plus 15 Sept. 2014.
Communications Skills. Pathways to Work. (2009, January 1). Retrieved September 14, 2014.