We all deal with some form of interpersonal conflict occasionally. Depending on our situation, we may deal with it daily or even more often. We may have problems with a boss or co-worker. Perhaps stress is causing conflict with out spouse or children. Maybe we are going through a difficult time with a friend. Interpersonal conflict comes in many forms, but it is almost always uncomfortable for us.
When we are faced with a conflict in a relationship, whether its work, friendship, intimate, family… whatever the relationship may be, we basically have three choices on how to deal with it.
We can choose to become defensive and attack the other person. This happens when we either project our own negative feelings about ourselves onto the other person, or genuinely feel that the other person is mostly to blame. In these situations we generally proclaim our innocence, or at least minimize our guilt, then make harsh remarks about the other person. Generally these remarks are personal, such as attacks on the person’s character or motives.
The result of this option is that we run the very real risk of damaging the relationship. In the heat of the moment we may say things that, even if we don’t mean them, we can never take back. Or, even if our attacks aren’t that aggressive, over time they do accumulate and have a lasting affect on the relationship.
The second option is to avoid or deny this situation. Perhaps we are either tired of an ongoing conflict, or are afraid of the potential consequences of discussing the issue, so we either minimize it or deny it altogether. We put it off and hope it just goes away. The problem is that most often issues that cause conflict in relationships do not go away, they grow until they are resolved or at least discussed. And the longer the conversation is avoided, the harder it becomes to have it.
The final, and best, option is to discuss the issue in a way that genuinely seeks to connect with the other person and find a solution, or at least an understanding. Doing this requires some courage and skill. Courage is required because this solution requires you to self-disclose, or to talk about your feelings and how the situation is affecting you. Skill is required because when discussing the issue, you must be able to empathize with the other person and voice your concerns without criticizing or defending. (Either would mean you are using Option 1 or 2, after all).
The benefit of choosing this final option is that if you do it the right way, instead of potentially damaging the relationship, you actually end up making it stronger. You show the other person that you value the relationship enough to make yourself vulnerable through self-disclosure, and to genuinely empathize with him or her to understand their point of view.
Admittedly, this is not an easy skill to learn for most of us. So I recommend that if you are interested in learning how to really make your relationships… all of them… more meaningful and stronger, pick up John Gottman’s book, The Relationship Cure: A 5 Step Guide to Strengthening Your Marriage, Family, and Friendships.