The greatest challenge of the day is how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution that has to start with each one of us?
If we are to overcome the virus of destructive emotions, we must start by inoculating ourselves against the internal chaos of feelings, such as fearful panic or blind rage, that hinder effective action.
Experience has taught me that underneath anger and fear, people are often experiencing deep unresolved grief.
Douglass E. Noll
This article briefly deals with domestic conflict in our homes, and a few practical suggestions on how these situations can be improved, minimized or resolved. While it may certainly have a bearing on incidents of domestic violence this article is not designed to address that topic (a future article will be dedicated to that more specifically), and readers are cautioned to approach such events with due consideration for their safety and the safety of those in their care.
The article is loosely divided into three sections of focus, being the preparation for such conflicts before they happen, considerations and techniques during such events and then, thirdly, a post-conflict assessment of a few additional techniques. It is, except where the context clearly so indicates, applicable to all domestic conflicts involving one’s spouse, partner, children or anyone that you share close domestic space with.
FIRST PHASE – BEFORE THE CONFLICT
Domestic conflicts often have a cyclical, repetitive nature – the same triggers and topics come around, the same roles are assumed, often with the same result. Spend some quality time in honestly assessing your domestic conflicts and try to accurately assess the cause for these conflicts. Often, the cause and the topics used during the arguments are not the same. In this way the arguments may be about one partner’s irresponsible use of money, while the real, underlying fear relates to insecurity, past experiences, concern about the children and so on. A repetitive argument that does not at some stage get to the real essence of the conflict has no realistic chance of ever getting resolved. Try to fully and honestly understand what is really at stake here. The more accurate your assessment, the better your chance of resolving the conflict.
This may of course also entail some difficult introspection of your own motives, fears and agenda. Closely related to this important understanding is to then see the triggers that these concerns have. If I am concerned about losing my partner any mention of past failures, mistakes or criticism may very well be seen by the initiator as a simple discussion about an isolated topic but by me as the beginning of the end of that relationship. The better you understand people the better you will be able to deal with your conflict. Be open to their possible thought processes – that does not mean that you agree with them, or that they have any undue advantage over you. Once you have had a cold, hard look at those triggers of conflict, you should also mentally go through recent fights and arguments.
Here in the planning phase you are more likely to see how these triggers influence your behaviour – how you get mad and how you raise your voice when someone shows you disrespect, or questions your competence. There is at this stage no need to judge yourself or to make any value judgment as to the respective right and wrong of such situations, simply be aware of these triggers, what behaviour or statements /words get you to react that way, and that in itself will give you a better chance at not being swept away by such triggers when they do happen. The simple noting, to yourself, of one of these usual, cyclical conflict events can already be liberating for when next it occurs, such as “After work he always tends to talk about his day as if that was more difficult than mine was, that often irritates me.”
Research and case studies also show that this simple act of preparation, of reflecting on these events, already give us a heightened sense of being in charge of events, of not simply being dragged along as an unwilling victim. Conflict, properly understood and applied, is an energy, something that we can use to great benefit for all involved – or it can be a destructive force that ends important relationships. We do not need less conflict; we need better conflict.
SECOND PHASE – DURING THE CONFLICT
Have you ever experienced conflict where you have a sense of coming back to yourself after having “lost” a few seconds (or even minutes) where you were arguing on auto-pilot, angrily saying things that you did not reflect upon, things that may be very harmful to the relationship? The preparation in the first section may help with that, and getting into the simple habit of mindful speaking is also a proven simple and helpful technique. It is however a little more difficult than what it may sound like in the beginning. In its simplest form it reminds us to simply stay present to what is going on around us during these conflicts. Practical ways of doing this is to remain aware of your breathing, to mentally label events as they occur without judging them, as for example “She is raising her voice and being very unreasonable, again, and this is starting to make me angry”. Often, and with a little bit of practice, this technique gives us those all-important few seconds to create space between us and the emotional impact of the conflict, and to respond in more constructive and healthy ways.
But modern conflict resolution research also shows that we avoid conflict too often, either by way of disguising our true emotions and wishes, or we simply make concessions that lock us into cyclical, unresolved conflicts. We believe, and may be conditioned to act in that manner, that conflict avoidance, that being “polite”, that “keeping the peace” is more important than an honest exchange of ideas and concerns. It is not. We need to retrain ourselves to understand, and to live this as a value, that an open and honest discussion between domestic partners, parents and children and other important relationships add immense value to that relationship. We need to give those we love the respect and the space to truly express their views, whether we agree with it or not. A secure, well-considered point of view should cherish debate and the progress that so often comes from domestic discussions. Actively listen to people, maybe for the first time in years, and see how this changes your domestic relationships.
It is human nature, and quite addictive for some, to participate in these domestic arguments. At some level they validate our positions, they have a strange sort of energy to them that some find necessary to communicate. Some of us have been conditioned to only be able to communicate that way when it gets to important domestic issues. Be aware of your own tendencies here, and try to change some of the perceptions that your partner or child may have of you during such conflicts. It may take a while, but get them to see that you are now open to listening to them, that you will at least consider their points of view, that they are allowed the space (and respect) of being able to raise difficult topics with you, that you will be able and willing to use a problem-solving approach to difficult areas. Once you have established your own new way of participating in these conflicts mirror the behaviour that you want to see in them – open and transparent discussions, respectful communication, consideration of the other’s perspective, listening to each other and so on. Keep your word, acknowledge good behaviour, give people the benefit of the doubt, own up when you are wrong.
During these conflicts themselves, keep an eye on your own non-verbal behaviour. These are often unintended triggers of further or increased conflict, and can be improved on by a simple consideration of body postures, tone and volume of voice, the use of your hands, the words we use and so on.
THIRD PHASE – POST-CONFLICT CONSIDERATIONS
Try to get into the habit of assessing important domestic conflicts after the events themselves, even if that is hours or days after and once you have had a chance to calmly reflect on them. Approach it as dispassionately as possible, and run through the considerations that we looked at in the first phase – what was this really about (the actual cause may not be the same as the words and topics used during the conflict event), what brought this about, are there patterns to discern here (alcohol, reference to money, time of day etc.). Simply note these thoughts and patterns, you do not need to “solve” them.
Make it a habit to ask yourself “What could I have done better?”. This is not to blame yourself or to minimize bad behaviour by the other party, but a simple conflict technique designed to give your perspective and to keep an eye on areas where you can improve. Domestic conflict often survives because of contributions from both sides. This exercise also enables you to prevent situations in future, for example the observation “When he is drunk like that it serves no purpose for me to shout back at him.” This does not blame you for anything and it helps you during the conflict. Improving your own conflict participation simply makes you more effective, it has nothing to do with accepting bad behaviour.
Where relevant, discuss the conflict event with your partner or child by simply focusing on the process itself, without dealing (necessarily) with the topic itself. Ask non-judgmental questions such as “Why do we struggle to discuss finances?” or “We seem to get very angry with each other when we discuss Mbali’s school marks. Have you noticed that?” Drawing attention to process results may help the other party to start their own private journey of self-reflection.
Research and experience also show that the best way to teach close partners how to have constructive conflict events is for you to mirror that over time, with no speeches and lectures delivered. Domestic conflict is a necessary process, but the stakes are so high. It affects the people who, generally speaking, are the most important people in our lives. As South Africans we are generally very bad at the proper and constructive use of domestic conflict. Empower yourself and your family with these techniques, and where necessary train yourself for more specific conflict needs, either by your own efforts or by getting professional conflict coaching for yourself and / or others. You are not alone; you are not powerless. Once you are conflict competent and conflict confident you need never fear conflict again, and you can unlock its transformative power.
(Andre Vlok can be contacted on email@example.com for any further information)
(c) Andre Vlok