At least not in the long term.
I used to avoid conflict as much as I could.
When I was a child growing up we lived in an extended family. Like many farming families back in the fifties when my father and mother married rather than getting their own house they extended the family home. My parents were very young when they got pregnant and married and so we lived as an extended family with my grandparents and parents in the same house with separate sections for their kitchens and living rooms.
Great most of the time, at least for us as children, but if there were raised voices my grandmother would rush out to our end of the house and try to smooth things out. She was usually defending her daughter in law. My grandmother was exposed to family violence in her first marriage so was very sensitive to the risks that raised emotions and voices posed.
Long story short I learned to fear conflict. Added to being extremely introverted and shy on top of that, difficult conversations were definitely not my thing.
If someone would have told me when I was an awkward teenager hiding in the school library at lunch time that I would grow up to be a dispute resolution specialist and mediation trainer I would have been very, very skeptical. But that is what happened.
I am either by nature or conditioning accommodating. If something isn’t important to me I am happy to go with the flow. I’m always up for new experiences so don’t have favourite restaurants or places so don’t have a problem with someone else making suggestions about where to go or what to do.
I am also very focused and goal driven when it comes to the big things and can be strong about what matters to me. The lack of practice and ability to deal with conflict really came back to bite me when things got difficult in my family during my first marriage. In the end he took off and I ended up holding the baby and wondering what the hell happened.
That’s when I started a journey of self-development and self-awareness that brought me to where I am today.
I remember the very first self-development I went to in the dying days of our marriage, with my husband, as we tried to save what had been a pretty great partnership when I had been content to be the passenger.
One of the things the speaker spoke about was awareness. It was a huge jolt for me. He had us do an exercise in being present. He asked us to come into the present moment the next day every time we opened a door. At that time just be in our bodies, aware of our senses, watching our hands reach out to the door knob, feel the sensations.
Wrong. I discovered the next day that I had miraculously got through the entire day without being aware of opening any doors at all!
I was living completely in my head. I wasn’t at home in my body. I was actually deliberately programming myself to do that. “I wish I could go to sleep and wake up when this is all over.” was the mantra I was using to remove myself from reality and become the walking dead. At least walking around with deadened emotions and sensations. I retreated from the pain of what was happening in my family into my head because I just couldn’t face it.
But that was a really crappy strategy. Not recommended unless you are in a situation where there really isn’t anything you can do to improve it.
The inevitable happened and my marriage ended. After a period of growing up in my forties I met my current partner. I took a much more empowered approach to working through issues. We still have our miscommunications despite any courses and studies we have done because we’ve all got filters and triggers that can activate blocking our ability to hear or to speak.
My journey to now is probably completely different to yours but there are some hints and tips I can give you that may help you to have the sorts of conversations you need to keep your relationship healthy and deal with issues rather than ignoring them and allowing them to fester into conflict.
1. Avoid the blame game
Keep what you say focused on sharing your own experience and avoid saying things that shame or blame them. Take responsibility for how you feel. Your feelings are your own and only you can manage them by what you choose to focus on. When you play the blame game part of it is trying to make them responsible for your reactions. Focus on sharing your experience and talk to them about how their behaviour has impacted you. They may be unaware of the impact of their words, actions or lack of actions on you. Tell them. That way there is no doubt about their understanding of how you feel about what is happening and you won’t be dealing with their projected thoughts about what your feelings are. Using “I feel” statements may feel uncomfortable but don’t let that stop you. Taking responsibility for your feelings and sharing them is a good way to be more effective at communicating.
2. Let them tell you what they need to say without interruption.
Listening to what they have to say is essential. It can be really tempting to jump in half way through something that you feel defensive about to put your side of things. Don’t. Let them say what they need to say. Then ask questions to help you to understand. Make sure you give them the opportunity to speak too. In mediation we do something called “parties opening statements” where each person is asked in turn to talk about what the issues are and what they want to resolve. The other person is asked to remain silent and listen. The mediator will ask the clarifying questions and if the person isn’t used to sharing their emotions, ask them how they feel about what is happening. This might be the first time that the other person has heard them really as they know that they don’t have to and actually can’t immediately respond. That helps to lower the defenses a bit so they can hear the other person.
3. Set some ground rules for respectful conversations.
Having open communication doesn’t mean being abusive to each other. Name calling, swearing at each other or other unhealthy communication patterns are not going to get you far. You don’t have to accept abuse as part of having a tough conversation about something that is important to you. If your partner or the other person you need to talk with, or you, have unhealthy communication strategies you may have to watch out for them. Things like:
- gaslighting – telling lies or otherwise distorting the truth in order to make what they say is wrong even though it clearly isn’t
- invalidating – making statements that belittle, minimize or make them feel that what they say is less valid or valuable
- intimidating – saying things to try and shut them up or stop them expressing themselves like making threats, threats to leave, threat to hurt themselves
Setting some ground rules around fighting fair may be a challenge. Work with a mediator who will help to prevent these types of toxic strategies and maintain respectful conversation ground rules.
4. Be honest — even when it’s hard.
This is hard. If you are used to avoiding difficult conversations then you are probably pretty good at deflecting the truth, avoiding and perhaps even outright lying to avoid confrontation. We all want to be the hero of our own story or the victim of someone else’s manipulation or provocation if we’ve done something we are not proud of.
Taking responsibility for your own actions and decisions and owning them is hard. Having difficult truthful conversations doesn’t guarantee that your relationship will survive. The temptation to give in to the ” what they don’t know, won’t hurt them” concept is not really a successful long term strategy. You have to be honest in relationships if you want a foundation of trust. Without trust it is very difficult for a relationship to deepen and grow over time.
Fear of losing the relationship is often a cause for dishonesty but we can’t be so afraid to lose the relationship that we stop being honest with the other person.
5. Be aware of personal triggers.
Triggers are protective responses that are conditioned (established) by past intense experiences. They can be set by a single intense incident or set slowly over time by association of an unwanted emotion with a particular stimulus. The slamming of the front door (which in childhood was a signal to run and hide from an angry parent) or a particular look or tone of voice may be enough to set someone who has personal triggers off into a very reactive emotional state.
If that happens to you or to your partner you have already no doubt experienced arguments that seemed start from no where. Learning to recognise and heal your triggers so that the association with danger and the activation of your defense system can be disconnected. You can’t outsource your healing to another person, certainly not to a relationship partner. You can’t do it for them either. No relationship will erase past trauma. But with conscious awareness you can learn to recognise your triggers, talk openly about our triggers and how we are impacted by them. Learning to recognise when you are being triggered and pulling the past into your present discussion can be incredibly empowering. This doesn’t put the responsibility on the other person, but it does create better understanding inside the relationship. You may have to adjourn the discussion until you have had the chance to calm down. That doesn’t mean using “I’m triggered” as an excuse to get out of any difficult conversation or situation. It does mean that if you have been triggered into a full on flight or fight response and are not feeling able to think calmly and rationally you tell your conversation partner what is happening for you.
6. Clean out your filters.
We all have a filtration system at work in our heads which without any conscious awareness deletes, distorts and generalises information that comes into our brain via our senses. We couldn’t function if we didn’t as there is far more information coming at us than we could ever pay attention to. The problem is our filters are gradually built up over time based on our life experiences as well as to some extent depending on our unique genetic makeup. Some people are more empathetic and intuitive and can pick up unspoken messages quite accurately. Some only think they can but are instead projecting their own feelings and values on others.
If we have set up filters that are distorting the message our conversation partner is trying to give us we will not hear the meaning of their words. Our brains will simply filter out what it things we don’t want to know. Setting your intention for the conversation is a really good way to help clear out your filters a bit. Even thinking to yourself, “I really want to understand what they have to say, even if it is painful.” can be helpful. That can help your brain know that it doesn’t have to put in place a filter to stop information that you will find painful from getting in.
Ever had something happen, something major, that you were are of but then quickly forgot about? That may be your filters at work stopping something upsetting from being accepted into your longer term memory.
7. Do it soon but do it appropriately.
Delaying the tough conversations rarely makes anything better. Leaving things unsaid that are eating you up inside usually makes the conversation more difficult rather than allowing the issue to magically go away. Delaying usually heightens our emotions, breeds resentment, and generally makes the conversations we do have more volatile than they needed to be. Learning to speak up when things are happening takes practice, but it’s much better than holding onto it until there’s the slightest hint of an argument and have it all come spewing out. That doesn’t mean that you have to have the full conversation on the spot at a time that is inappropriate.
If you have children there are some conversations that you should not have in front of them. You might have to arrange a time and place to talk it out fully. Flagging the issue and arrange a time for the conversation can be a huge pressure relief valve.
Hard conversations don’t really get easier over time. We can practice the skills, work together to try and follow these types of guidelines but it still can be a very emotional experience and may identify issues that require hard decisions and changes.
Reading this article isn’t going to magically turn you into a master communicator! Lets be honest. You are still going to have overactive filters and triggers. Things are still going to be done by you or by your partner that are upsetting and difficult to deal with.
But clearing the air, being honest and being respectful about how you talk with each other is going to make a big difference. Sharing the impact of each others behaviours, hearing and feeling heard are what healthy relationships require. If you take nothing else away take away a desire to develop the ability to have the hard conversations with respectful communication.
If you are willing but your partner is not then getting a third party mediator to facilitate the conversation is going to be helpful. Mediation is an intervention that will help you to talk together in that interaction and hopefully help you to work out a plan for moving forward.
If there is a lot of trauma and dysfunction in your relationship then relationship counseling might be a longer term solution with a well trained counselor.
If you want to resolve the issues but your partner isn’t willing to accept help or make any changes you may have to consider your options If there is no intention of working with you then remember that no one is able to maintain or save a relationship by ourselves.
If you are in danger in your relationship from physical, psychological or emotional abuse by a partner who does not respect you and consider what matters to you as well as what they want then consider getting help from professionals. Despite what they say, how many times they apologize after or promise they won’t deliberately hurt you again if there is a pattern the only change is likely to be an escalation over time.
If you have a relationship that is safe and there is a willingness to work with us we can learn to get better at having difficult conversations, even if it isn’t our favourite thing! Over time we can get good at raising issues early, in a way that isn’t based on blame and use those opportunities to make our relationships better. A surface peace that just looks good but doesn’t feel good isn’t really peace, is it? If you want to feel safe, supported and loved in your relationship you will have to be have the vulnerable, honest conversations needed to make your relationship stronger and more supportive of your needs.