We’re frequently asked by individuals and couples to describe how we’ve learned to communicate through struggles and resolve conflict. Though we wish we could say we never have to employ strategies for conflict resolution, the truth is, it happens. If we are all being honest, conflict resolution is one of the most common forms of communication that any of us have to navigate along the dusty road of life. Whether we stumble upon the familiar hazard of squabbles and friction in our daily life with loved ones, or come face to face with contentious neighbors, co-workers, acquaintances or extended family members, the struggle is real. (Intentional pause here for all those with teenage kids to take a deep breath.)
Through the fierce battle we personally faced to regain health and unity in our marriage and the ongoing commitment we’ve made as a family to walk in vulnerability and authenticity, we’ve pretty much simplified conflict resolution down to a four-phrase mantra. The caveat here is the real truth that a mantra is only as good as our implementation of it. A lot of hard work and energy goes into an effective communication strategy that tackles conflict. We’ve learned, however, that it is worth it…even if it takes a bit of time to get the rhythm.
1. Own My Part
It may seem counter intuitive to begin a strategy with confession, but taking the time to self evaluate our own contribution in any given situation is an essential and powerful agent for authentic resolution. What owning our part does is open us up to realize, though we may feel wronged or hurt by the other person involved, we have a part to play. It may be as simple as, “I’m sorry I was distracted and not listening to you,” or “I apologize for raising my voice,” or even “I’m sincerely sorry you are feeling (fill in the blank,) right now.” If we are aware of a hurt we have caused, confessing and apologizing for what we have done upfront builds trust instead of confusion. Simply put, owning our part and expressing it gives way for honest dialog and breaks down barriers of misunderstanding.
If you’re anything like us, this is by far the hardest component. Listening is not only an art, it’s a difficult choice we all have the power to make, even when we don’t really want to. It is no small task to stop momentarily and let the other person communicate what might easily be perceived as a falsehood or critique. Allowing this personal pause with the decision to respect the position or perception of the other person will give you the opportunity to really hear where they are coming from. Often there has been a misunderstanding or unintentional action that set off a trigger. The only way to assess this is to calmly hear each other out. In healthy communication the “listening,” phase will pass between each person numerous times, interjected of course by, “owning my part,” as needed. Easier said than done, right? Honestly, this is a process that takes a lot of practice and even more patience. It doesn’t always go as planned in real-time, but if healthy connection is the desired outcome, listening is always a non-option.
Being willing to learn is the thread that holds it all together. If we are open to it, we are learning something about the other person’s perspective and life experience with every phrase, physical cue and verbal response. To be candid, we are also learning about ourselves. There is something very empowering when we posture ourselves on a daily basis with the heart and receptivity to learn. Asking the internal “why” questions, leads to a deeper understanding of motivation that opens up our heart to empathize not only with others but with ourself as well. As a family, we try to encourage one another to be willing to learn something about ourself and those we communicate with that goes deeper than just the surface words that are spoken. (We call this, “discovering the root.”) It may be that insecurity or fear is driving the conflict, or possibly jealousy, how about something as basic as hunger and fatigue. In our family of five, it never fails that someone or multiple people at one time, lose it when they are hungry and tired. At that point, it’s on us to be willing to learn from what we experience. At times, we’ve had to learn to “agree to disagree,” or come to the realization that this can’t be solved or resolved in one sitting, and we have to make the hard decision to pause before things escalate. Most of the time, listening and learning from what we are hearing eventually leads to a mutual apology. (Even if getting there takes a bit of time and effort.)
4. Move Forward
Do you know what is worse than getting into an argument and letting anger get the best of you? Staying there. We call this getting, “stuck.” Regardless of whether you reached your desired outcome in regard to resolving a specific conflict, you have to make the choice to move forward. Let’s be honest, this is pretty easy when things have gone smoothly, but it’s another story when it doesn’t. For this reason you can’t really move forward in a healthy way unless you are willing to download from the learning portion of the process. Otherwise, it can be easy to just shove our hurt or confusion under the rug, go into denial, or carry an offense. Moving forward has to do with incorporating all the above steps and allowing yourself to grow from it…no matter what the other person chooses to do. We often encourage couples when we speak, that being triggered by another person is inevitable. It’s how we respond from it that either becomes fertile ground for growth and intimacy or a wasteland that breed’s un-forgiveness and bitterness. That choice is ours.
We understand deeply the impact communication has on relationships. It is the mouthpiece that gives flight to the motivation of our heart, even if at times our motivation is in need of process and healing. Healthy communication has the power to be an instrument that brings hope to others and postures us to grow and mature. It's also filled with nuance and mystery on occasion. We've learned that it is worth the time, effort and energy to keep our eyes on what truly matters, and anchor that as the focused goal. Not the objective of right or wrong.
For more information see our resource and speaking page.
James and Teri Craft