In this and the next four columns, I’m going to discuss four key principles for successfully solving problems and resolving conflicts in relationships, especially in intimate partnerships. It’s based on the work of Dr. John Gottman, a psychologist who has spent over thirty-five years studying intimate relationships, including gay and lesbian partnerships. His research has identified the behaviors which most frequently harm partnerships and some core principles which foster stability and contentment in relationships.
The first principle which he finds crucial in any conflict discussion is to soften your startup. This principle is partly derived from the observation that discussions invariably end on the same note they begin. If you begin a discussion of an issue harshly, with accusations, contempt, blaming, or criticism, you’ll end with at least as much tension as you began. It’s not that there isn’t any place for angry feelings in our lives. Anger alerts us to wrongs and motivates us to deal with them. But a little of it goes a long way. The human brain evolved to be very reactive to tones of anger because they carry signals of threat; notice, for example, how the background noise in a restaurant gets quiet when people hear an angry voice. A relationship is built from interactions, and the accumulated weight of the tone you use has big effects.
So the first step in successful conflict resolution is to be very mindful of your tone. When it’s harsh, even in mild ways — rolling your eyes, subtle sarcasm, irritation – you’re on the road to an escalation of conflict rather than a resolution of it. Gottman’s work has shown that it typically takes five positive interactions to make up for one negative one. As the Buddha once said, getting angry with others is like throwing hot coals with bare hands: both people get burned. So, if you’re angry, take some time to soothe yourself. Slow down, do a few long exhalations to calm your body, relax your eyes, throat, and heart. Then put the situation in perspective, and try to access the gentler, more vulnerable feelings beneath the anger.
One important way to begin with a softer startup is to be clear, before you start the discussion, about what your true intentions are. Are you having the discussion to show that you’re right and that the other person is wrong? Are you doing it to vent, or work some covert agenda? Is your intention to win? To defeat, punish or humiliate your partner? If these are your underlying intentions, a negative tone is virtually inevitable. Instead, before you speak, try to ground yourself in more positive purposes, such as find out what really happened in a situation; deepening trust and understating; or solving a practical problem.
Once you’re ready to begin the discussion, lay a good foundation by first establishing a frame of relatedness and goodwill. You don’t need the cooperation of the other person in order to center yourself, clarify internally what you want to say, open your heart, find good wishes, and take a little time to get into relationship before bringing up your topic.
When you’re ready, say what needs to be said. If you need to complain about something, do it directly, but avoid blame. Let’s say you’re partner insisted on buying a dog despite your reservations. He promised he’d clean up after the dog, but now you’re finding poop all over the yard. It is certainly okay to complain. You can say something like “Hey, there’s poop all over the yard. You said you would clean up after him. I’m really upset about this.” While this is confrontational, it isn’t an attack. You’re complaining about a particular situation, not your partner’s personality. What is important is not to use inflammatory language. Exaggerations, accusations, fault-finding, words like “never” or “always,” insults, swearing, threats, pathologizing (“you never grew up”), and cheap shots (“you can’t be trusted to do anything you promise”) are like pouring gasoline on smoldering embers. Instead, use words that are accurate but not provocative. A civil tone actually promotes honesty and assertiveness because you don’t need to fight side battles about how unkindly or inaccurately you spoke. It can help to imagine that you’re being video-taped and people you care about will be watching it later. That will make it more likely that you won’t say anything you’ll regret later.
Make statements that begin with “I” instead of “You.” “I” statements sound less threatening. If, for instance, you say “I would like you to listen to me,” you’re much less likely to put the other person on the defensive than if you say, “You’re not listening to me!”
It’s also important to express apxxxpreciation to your partner. If he or she has handled a situation better in the past, couch your requests within an appreciation of what was done in the past and how important that is to you. It is vitally important, in any disagreement, that you convey that you respect and cherish your partner, because nothing is more destructive to any relationship than contempt.
Next time: Learn to make and receive repair attempts.