Let me say at the start that I don’t know any perfect people. We can all act in very human ways when frustrated with others. But having said that, some of us act in more human ways than others!
In my years of counselling people over their relationships, here are some mistakes I commonly see people make when dealing with conflict.
- Attacking the person, not the problem: Oh dear! We have all done this one, using some great labels that capture nicely how we are feeling about the other person. The words, selfish, rude, and controlling, are the more repeatable of the colourful adjectives that are used. We are, of course, better to put effort into finding solutions rather than allocating blame. If there is any constructive feedback, here we restrict this to the speak about the specific behaviour that concerns us or the behaviour we would like to see.
- Choosing a bad time and place: I have learned over the years that trying to have a serious discussion with my wife, Christy, when she is preparing a meal is definitely not a good time and place. But I also know couples who think that when they or the other person is in a foul mood, tired, or intoxicated, that this is also a great time. Sometimes, we have to allow ourselves or the other person time to settle (or sober up) before we have that conversation.
- Not being alert to how you are coming across: Most of what we communicate is through our body language and tone. So, here we need to be well-aware of the messages we are sending with our demeanour. As well as some self-awareness, we also need some self-control, so we can moderate the way we are communicating when needed. If we are not being alert to how we are coming across, we can inadvertently communicate disrespect and hostility.
- Believing it is just other people who need to change: Yes, we have all believed this at times. And sometimes this is true. But my experience has been that the great majority of the time there are actions both people can take to help the situation. Yes, it might mostly be the other person. But if you can do your part, this often puts other people in a better place to do their part as well.
- Getting stuck in one way of dealing with conflict: To be honest, there is a time to try to get your own way, such as when you have to make an unpopular decision and you have the power and respect of others to do so. There is also a time to be flexible and find a solution acceptable to all. There are also times to simply give in when the issue is far more important to the other party.
Problems arise when one approach is overused or it is not a good fit for the situation. So, here we need to know which approach is going to be the best fit for the situation and be flexible enough to try something different.
- The problem is defined in win-lose terms: Examples of this include times when we label others as the problem, assume others are intentionally trying to be rude or disrespectful, or we debate whose opinion is correct.
Rather than labelling others as the problem, we are better to find a face-saving definition of the problem, such as a communication breakdown, both being under stress, or one person or both people being human.
Rather than assuming the worst of people, you might instead assume the best or ask them to help you understand why they behaved as they did. When faced with two interpretations of a person’s behaviour – one that they acted maliciously and another less-sinister explanation, the kinder explanation will often be the correct one.
Rather than trying to win by convincing people your opinion is the correct one, we can simply choose to agree to disagree. Though you may have to agree on the way ahead, even though you have different opinions.
- Quickly deciding on a solution and failing to consider other options: Being quite decisive, practical, and knowing my own mind, I can quickly generate a solution to most difficulties. Unfortunately, my solution is not always seen as a good solution by my family. So, here I, and perhaps you, need to be more open to solutions generated by others and creative enough to suggest other options.
- One person leaves it up to the other to come up with a solution: Here I am not talking about where you trust the other person and you will support their decision. But more where you have absolved yourself of responsibility for finding a solution, but are prepared to criticise solutions they generate. Although it can be frustrating looking for solutions and we are allowed to give ourselves a break from the conversation, we still need to be a partner in the process.
Of course, all of the above are simply bad habits. Yes, they may well have been well-learned from our upbringing – thank goodness we can blame our parents for something!. But they are also habits that have been well-practised by us over the years.
To break bad habits requires motivation to change and consciously interrupting problem patterns over time.