published Thursday, June 21st, 2012

Upton: The calm after the storm

I once read a story about a couple who got into a passionate fight in the middle of a street in Paris. The man impulsively flew home to the United States ahead of time, while the woman, left alone on their vacation, decided to enjoy the rest of the week.

Ten years later, they returned Europe to reminisce and laugh about that low point in their relationship, but they were still together.

On the other hand, many a friendship has broken up over cross words, a misunderstanding or even a calm, calculated comment that hit a sore spot in the listener's heart.

Resolving conflict takes guts. Many people would rather face a scary dog on a lonely street than speak honestly and forthrightly about how another person's actions make them feel.

Fears of being rejected, ignored, criticized or being belittled give many people pause. Others grew up with such explosive anger in their homes that they relate every argument or uncomfortable discussion to failure. They brace themselves for the big boom. The bottom line is, few of us are taught how to handle conflict or to see it used to improve and strengthen relationships.

Researchers tell us however that conflict is normal in healthy relationships. It has to do with a perceived threat more than just a disagreement, and often arises out of the differing needs of individuals.

One of the first skills needed to handle conflict respectfully is the ability to regulate one's rising stress levels. Being aware of one's emotions in the moment is also helpful.

There are times I've handled confrontation well, listening and responding to the complaint or anger of another while trying to respond to their unspoken needs. Other times things went south quickly. I became quickly agitated and responded with anger and defensiveness, or I withdrew and refused to continue the conversation as soon as something was said that I considered offensive.

Often, the times that things went well occurred after I had time to prepare for a conversation. When I was tired, overwhelmed, or caught off guard, monitoring myself became a far more difficult task.

If you know that the timing of the other person will make your discussion more difficult, suggest talking at a later moment, or take a few seconds to have a silent conversation with yourself, reminding yourself to remain calm and to simply listen for a few minutes before responding.

Another key skill conflict resolution experts say will help diffuse conflict is to pay attention to nonverbal cues, all the communication that is being expressed without words. Clues to deeper issues may be searched out in facial expressions, body language, and the tremor and sound of one's voice.

Often people use words to express only part of the problem. For example, if someone says, "You never listen to me!" and they are crying, have a frustrated or frightened look, and are standing with their arms crossed, they may mean, "I'm feeling unsure of your love and commitment to me lately. I'm tired and overwhelmed with my life. Would you please reassure me by helping me feel heard and valued right now?"

A diffusing response can be a warm hug or a focused, caring look along with words spoken in a patient tone like, "I'm listening now. Will you please share what's on your mind?" As each person shares, the two may gain a deeper understanding of each of their needs, and repairing work can begin.

Tabi Upton, MA-lpc is a local therapist and writer. Email her at tabiupton@bellsouth.net.

about Tabi Upton...

Tabi Upton, MA-LPC is a therapist at New Beginnings Counseling Center.

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