It's typical for people to avoid conflict in many areas of their lives. In the COVID-19 era, with many of us spending more time at home, that’s become harder to do.
When you do decide to have a difficult conversation, don’t expect a solution that moment, says mediator Adar Cohen (Cohen, 2020).
Everyday life is a stream of moments when people are often out of sync. Even at the very start of life, research suggests that babies are out of tune emotionally with their caregivers 70 percent of the time. They learn to mend ties with their gazes, smiles, gestures, and other unmistakable baby signaling (Tronick and Gianino, 1986).
As adults, we need to remind ourselves that conflict has a good side. “It offers us information about how we could work with others more effectively, improve our relationships, and grow as individuals,” Cohen observes (Cohen, 2020).
Avoiding conflict doesn’t mean you’re bad at relating
Some people are especially inclined to step around a conflict or withdraw. If you’re the conflict-avoider, you may feel ashamed or resentful. On the other hand, if you’re trying to get a conflict-averse person to change their behavior or agree on a plan, you may become angry.
It helps to recognize that avoiding conflict isn’t a character flaw. In a marriage, for example, most of the fighting has to do with issues that will never go away. According to famed marriage researchers John and Julie Gottman, your goal can’t be to resolve those differences, but rather to keep them from poisoning your happiness together. It’s freeing just to realize that it’s okay for a couple to avoid most conflicts (Fulwiler, 2014).
But avoiding conflict nearly all the time creates a particular kind of marriage. According to the Gottmans, happy conflict-avoiding couples tend to maintain separate lives. They don’t express needs often or try to persuade their partner. But they’re happy with a clearly defined area in which they may be quite connected and caring.
Other couples jump into debates and intense fights. That’s okay too, the Gottmans say. Happy “volatile” couples keep laughing and don’t show contempt. They emphasize honesty and often do a lot together.
“Validating” couples fall in-between. They’ve gravitated towards the approach Cohen describes, which emphasizes understanding each other’s feelings and point of view. Although they’ll fight on certain topics and can get into power struggles, they never get too dramatic (Fulwiler, 2014).
Do you know how tolerant you are of these three styles? I’ve found it fascinating to consider how I respond.
A volatile expressive relationship full of laughter sounds exciting to me, but I can’t take much volatility, even with a friend. One close friend in his 70s had been working on his anger problems for a lifetime. After one of his meltdowns, I withdrew completely. Later on, I had the idea of matching his style and showing anger myself, which is not easy for me at all. When he heard my outburst, he said he felt “closer to me” and we did become more cooperative and had more fun over many months.
But the next time he was angry at me, I didn’t feel anger, just disappointment, and exhaustion. I bowed out of the friendship.
Note that the Gottmans’ research is about marriage, and I’m the one here suggesting it applies to friendships and other ties (but, believe me, it does).
The general key, they say, is to find some mix of these styles you can both handle and keep a flow of positive interactions that outweigh the negative interactions by five to one.
No matter the style, they add that there are some conflict pitfalls to avoid.
The Gottmans found that they can predict with 90 percent accuracy which couples will divorce by watching how they fight. If you express not just anger but actual contempt, your partner may respond by stone-walling - tuning out or acting busy with something else or just walking away. If you criticize with statements like “You always,” you’re likely to hear a defense. Contempt, stone-walling, criticism, and defensiveness don’t solve or manage the conflict.
So here’s advice from the mediator: Try the validating approach in a difficult conversation. Cohen describes these steps (Cohen, 2020):
1. Prepare by imagining understanding
Let’s say Sarah, your twenty-something daughter, is living with you and working. You see her as a “drama queen” and she sees you as “flat” (She’s volatile and you’re an avoider). You have decided to ask her to pay rent and also want her to do laundry for the family, but dread a flood of accusations that you don’t love her.
Before you approach Sarah, Cohen suggests imagining that you’ve just had the “best possible conversation” with her. Imagine that she listened intently while you completely explained your request (or, as it might be, a complaint). You feel good about the future of your relationship.
What would you say in the moment when you feel good about Sarah? Cohen suggests writing down the first statement that comes to mind—for example, “I can tell you care a lot about becoming independent and I have a lot of respect for you.” Cohen calls these statements “gems.”
Cohen suggests that you give Sarah a copy of his guide to difficult conversations (see source below) to give her a chance to prepare a gem for you.
Next, phone or meet with a trusted friend and say what you’re going to do with Sarah. With your friend you will complete the following four statements:
The biggest emotion that I’m feeling toward Sarah is…
The biggest emotion that I expect Sarah is feeling toward me is…
The gem statement I will make to Sarah is…
My hope for this difficult conversation is…
You might tell your friend that you’re not looking for advice, but a conversation with support and sympathy might help you clarify your gem.
2. Time for the conversation
When you talk to Sarah, start with your gem and then say that you feel that you can work out the conflict. If she’s read Cohen’s guide and done her homework, she’ll have a gem of her own. According to Cohen, his mediation clients dread this moment, yet it typically turns out to bring the most relief.
Next, you might ask Sarah:
Listen. This is the biggest task of every difficult conversation. If it becomes painful, remember the hope you shared with your friend, your reward for enduring discomfort.
It doesn’t even matter whether you agree or see any value in Sarah’s comments. Listening to Sarah will help her process emotions that are causing both of you trouble.
3. When it’s your turn
When Sarah is done, it’s time for you to express emotion as well as your reasoning. Describe your own experience rather than making statements about Sarah. Are you hurt that Sarah doesn’t ask you about your day? Are you worried about money? Don’t expect Sarah to be able to hear feedback about herself. However, she might hear your emotions and respond with empathy.
The final question to ask each other is: “What has changed for you as a result of this conversation?”
Share anything positive that you feel and express gratitude. Is there anything you can realistically promise to do? Let’s say Sarah asks you not to bug her for the rent money if she doesn’t pay it on time. Can you agree to give her a week of leeway when that happens?
You don’t have to decide right now. Remember, a difficult conversation is a success if you both understand each other better.
We all know we’re supposed to listen, but may not realize that listening is to our own advantage.
“There is no more productive and efficient activity in a difficult conversation than listening,” Cohen writes. The solutions will come later.
Cohen A. How to have a difficult conversation: Psyche Guides. Psyche. https://psyche.co/guides/use-mediation-techniques-to-overcome-the-muck-of-blame-and-anger. Published November 18, 2020.
Divecha D. Family Conflict Is Normal; It's the Repair That Matters. Greater Good. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/family_conflict_is_normal_its_the_repair_that_matters. Published October 27, 2020.
Fulwiler, M. The Five Types of Couples. The Gottman Institute. https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-5-couple-types/ Published November 22, 2014.
The Gottman Method - About | The Gottman Institute. The Gottman Institute. https://www.gottman.com/about/the-gottman-method/ Published 2014
Tronick, E. Z., & Gianino, A. Interactive mismatch and repair: Challenges to the coping infant. Zero to Three, 6(3), 1–6. https://psycnet.apa.org/record/1987-15272-001 Published 1986.