Some time ago, I remember asking my lovely wife, Christy, what is one thing I could work on in our relationship. She pondered the question for a moment before answering very innocently, “Only one?”

I don’t know any perfect people. So, we are all allowed to be human and say and do unhelpful things, at times.

However, Relationships researcher, John Gottman, from the Gottman Institute in Seattle, says that we need to be gentle when dealing with our frustrations with loved ones and colleagues. He says that while there are no perfect relationships, ongoing criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling and contempt are particularly destructive.

Contrasted to this are people in healthy relationships. Even during times of frustration and conflict, Gottman says there tends to be five times more helpful than negative interactions.

What are these helpful interactions during a conflict? Here are 7 positive messages we communicate through our words and actions, even when we are frustrated with others.

  1. Let’s work this out: Yes, there is a time to remove yourself from a hurtful dynamic. But if we become stuck in a pattern of avoidance this only communicates ongoing rejection and disrespect and allows problems to fester.Here you need to consider the costs of the status quo continuing and the possible benefits of change. While I cannot guarantee that if you act helpfully, the other person will change. I can certainly guarantee that no change from you or the other person is highly likely to get more of the same or the situation becoming worse.

    When we communicate a genuine desire to work things out, this changes the tone of the conversation and communicates goodwill and hope for the future. At our best, we search for solutions that take everyone’s needs into account, explore compromises, or perhaps decide to change our part in the hope that if we change, the other person will as well.

  2. Can you help me to understand? It is a real act of maturity and self-control when we can put our own need to be understood on the back burner and try to understand the other person’s perspective. When we genuinely listen and empathise with another, this also puts them in a better position to listen to us. Of course, understanding the other person is one thing. We also need to demonstrate we understand through our words and actions.
  3. I’m sorry: It is a great strength when we can acknowledge we are not perfect and can take responsibility for when our behaviour has been unhelpful, even if that was not our intention. Apologies are not always claiming full responsibility for the situation. They can also be for our part of the problem, for how our behaviour came across, or for the misunderstanding that occurred.Apologies are best when people feel properly heard and empathised with, apologies or statements of regret are completely genuine, and there is an undertaking to work at not repeating the behaviour that contributed to the problem.
  4. I know you were not meaning to be hurtful: Yes, there are people among us who have bad intentions towards us. But for the great majority of people, most are not deliberately trying to hurt or frustrate us. They are often instead doing their best to respond to our own challenging behaviour or are not aware of how they are coming across. Assuming the worst of others only tends to elicit a defensive response. It tends to be helpful when we acknowledge that the hurt from their behaviour was not intentional.
  5. This is what I would prefer: Here it helps when we speak about what we would prefer – speaking with you sooner if they have a concern, for example. Yes, there is a time for criticism, but voicing what we would like, rather than what we find frustrating, is less provocative and helps people to be more clear about what we would appreciate.
  6. I am willing to do my part: Here actions can speak louder than words. This willingness to do our part is also very face-saving for the other person and encourages them to do their part. By following through with actions, we are also helping to repair the relationship and reduce the risk of the same problem occurring in the future.We need to be realistic though. We are all human. So, agreements and undertakings don’t work perfectly and often need to be revised and recommitted to.
  7. I’m committed to this relationship: There is certainly a time to leave a miserable relationship and workplace. But do try to resist the urge to make such threats unless you are close to following through.People in healthy personal and team relationships need to know that others are prepared to work through the issues, get over their upset and remain committed to the relationship and things work better for the future. Such commitment communicates that the personal or working relationship is more important than the hurt or frustration.

Remember that Gottman’s research found that even in times of conflict and frustration, there are five times more helpful interactions than negative ones. In unhealthy relationships, the ratio during conflict was more like 50 / 50.

So, it is important for all of us to reduce the hurtful interactions and increase the helpful ones in relationships when there are difficulties.

Being kind and self-controlled when you believe others are not is not easy. But someone has to be the adult here. It may as well be you.

Quote of the week

“Peace is not absence of conflict, it is the ability to handle conflict by peaceful means.”

– Ronald Reagan

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