Conflict has the potential to destroy or rejuvenate your relationship. Often, people avoid conflict because they have not witnessed or experienced many conflicts that end in people becoming closer together. We, as a culture, don’t do conflict well.
Turning towards conflict and your partner
Avoiding conflict, minimizing it, or hurling accusations are all forms of turning away from another person. For transformational conflict to take place, you need to turn towards your partner and towards the conflict.
Turning towards your partner means cultivating a sense of respect that they are a different person than you (individuation), have their own legitimate feelings, and have their own attachment wounds. From this perspective, I invite you to develop a sense of curiosity. Listen to their underlying pain, unmet needs, and feelings. If you are triggered by what they are saying, focus less on their words and more on the pain that is behind what they are saying. The goal is for your partner to feel understood by you. And, this is only accomplished when they say so, not if you believe that you have listened sufficiently. Make sure to ask them if they have more to say. For example, you can simply say, “Is there more?”
A part of helping people feel understood is to validate their reality. Demonstrate that you get why they felt and acted the way that they did.
Speaking authentically and vulnerably
In addition to deep, empathic listening, you can turn towards your partner by speaking honestly without blame. Own your experience. Use “I” statements. Share your hurt, sadness, or fear. Often, these emotions are underneath any anger you experience, and it is better to share from this more vulnerable place. Vulnerability begets vulnerability. Your openness and willingness to share deeply invites your partner to do the same.
Share only the most important things that you want your partner to know. Perhaps you want them to know what that experience was like for you or give them insight into what it is like to be you. The fewer words you use, the higher the likelihood that your partner will be able to hear what you want them to hear.
Understand before seeking understanding
Make sure to get your partner’s world first before insisting that they understand you. By understanding them, they will likely feel closer to you, appreciate your efforts, and become willing to hear your perspective. You are modeling how you would like them to be with you.
Your body talks
Remember, the vast majority of what we communicate is nonverbal. So, you could be saying all the right words, but you could still have a defensive posture, have an irritated tone of voice, avoid eye contact, or interrupt. These nonverbal and paraverbal cues are likely to create distance between you and your partner.
Congruence is when your words, tone, body language, and context are in alignment with each other. If you say that you are sorry while you are clenching your fist, I’m not going to believe you. If you tell me you care about me while having soft, kind eyes, I’m going to connect with you more.
Conflict is a growth practice
Conflict is an opportunity for personal growth. You get to exercise your values with the people that you care most about. You get to absorb meaningful feedback from people who know you the most, so you can change for the better. Cultivating curiosity about what you can learn from conflict is contagious and transforms relationships.
Doing conflict right is hard, and you are bound to make mistakes. If you mess it all up and damage the relationship, don’t worry, just make a repair.
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