Do you remember George and Karen*? Always fighting to win the battle between them? Their quest for victory left no room for compassionate dialogue. I am not anti-conflict. In fact, I see conflict as an important and healthy component in relationship when used constructively.
Conflict serves as a catalyst for change. Conflict demonstrates healthy differentiation, meaning that it helps to clearly identify the differences between partners. Conflict can mobilize partners into action.
Whether or not that happens depends on how you manage the conflict and what you do with the information presented. Resolution does not always occur in one nicely packaged conversation. It may take several discussions before partners can settle their differences.
Settling for some might mean “agreeing to disagree”. For others, it might mean one person puts their desires aside to meet the desires of the other. Or, the ideal solution might arise. This occurs when both partners identify their most important desires and find a solution that meets both of their needs.
However, none of that can happen without some level of compassion. So when I worked with George and Karen, I guided them toward a more compassionate presence with the following 4 step approach:
Step #1: Tell me your story (your interpretation of events)
Step #2: Let me tell you what I just heard you say
Step #3: Let me tell you what parts of your story make sense to me (if the whole story does not make any sense to you, look for parts of the story that do – can you make sense of any of this?)
Step #4: Based on this understanding, share how I might contribute to this problem as you see it
This construct required George to search for aspects of Karen’s story that made sense to him. For George, it made sense that Karen felt he acted differently around her family. By making sense of her story, he developed compassion for her. Compassion lowered his defenses. With a more open heart, he was able to admit that, yes, when they spent time with her family, he became distant, not just from them, but from her too.
Karen developed compassion as well. She was able to make sense of how George often felt smothered by her family. When she stopped defending her story, she was able to admit that her family can be overbearing. She understood why he retreated, even though she did not like it. In fact, she admitted that sometimes, she wished she could retreat too.
What a different conversation! Instead of attacking, denying and defending, George and Karen made room for each other’s experience and actively sought to make sense of what felt extraordinarily offensive.
This approach works well when both partners share their interpretations, when both partners search for aspects of their partner’s perspective that makes sense and when both partner’s demonstrate some level of accountability.
Share these four steps with your partner. Keep them in mind when you have your next difficult conversation. Know that it may take several tries before you finally shift into lowering your defenses.
If you find that you remain stuck in unhealthy conflict, I’m just a phone call or email away.
*George and Karen are fictitious names to protect client confidentiality