Conflict in the home or workplace is part of our lives, whether we like it or not. I don’t think it’s realistic to assume that you will never have conflict with anyone that you have a relationship with. In fact, research shows that in any kind of conflict is not how often or how intense the conflict is but it’s more important in how the conflict is handled (Markman, et. al. 1993). Research also shows that when conflict is handled well, it can lead to more satisfying and rewarding relationships (Canary & Messman, 2000). Additionally, conflict is a chance to learn about the minds of others, and how to consider their thoughts and feelings.* In other words, conflict does not have to be scary. Yet many of us avoid it at all costs!
If you find yourself in conflict with others often or very often, I think it’s best to start looking at how you’re contributing to the conflict. When conflict happens, it’s very easy for us to blame the other person without really examining if we are doing or saying something that contributes to these disagreements. If this is the case, here are just a few of the reasons this might be happening:
Competing-you might be in a relationship with someone who has competing goals or different core values to yours
Avoiding-you might be outright avoiding having hard conversations with someone and hoping it gets better
Accommodating-you might be over accommodating what the other person needs without considering what you want/need to avoid conflict (Communication in the Real World, 2016).
If this is the case, it’s important that you examine the nature of the relationship and then decide on how you can handle the conflict in order to move through it and forward in a healthy way. Personally, I think it’s better to confront the conflict sooner rather than later so that resentment doesn’t have a chance to build.
I also work with many people who report they try their best to not contribute to the conflict in a relationship. Often, I’m helping people find their person blind spots and help them work through those in therapy so they can interact in a healthier more peaceful way with others. But sometimes, even when they’ve had a chance to change and do better, they find their significant others, or the difficult co-worker still triggers them. Research shows these are the most common conflict triggers in relationships:
Criticism-when you perceive someone is evaluating your personality, behavior, appearance, or life choices
Demand-you perceive someone is asking something of you that seems unfair or irrelevant
Cumulative annoyance-building annoyance, frustration or anger over time that eventually leads to a conflict
Rejection-you perceive someone’s words or actions are dismissive, ignoring or invalidating (Communication in the Real World, 2016)
In either of these cases, when you can identify how you’re contributing or responding, and your own patterns of behavior, and make some changes. I encourage people to communicate their wants and needs in a healthy way. When people are unable to do so, this might be an indicator that something deeper is happening in the relationship. Either you’re not being emotionally healthy and communicating in an assertive way, or the other person needs to make some changes and become more emotionally safe. Either way, it’s important to get to the root of the issue. I encourage people to be aware of when they are trying to communicate with others in an assertive, healthy way. Here are a few do’s and don’ts that might help:
Vulnerability is key to any healthy relationship. When we don’t trust the other person, it is difficult to be vulnerable with the other person. The level of vulnerability with the other person obviously depends on the nature of the relationship. For example, you would be more vulnerable with a family member than you would a co-worker, but nonetheless, both relationships will have some level of vulnerability. If this is missing, this may be a key in unlocking what is happening in the relationship that is making it difficult to communicate your wants and needs.
Use reflective listening
This is probably one of the hardest but best skills you can add to your healthy communication toolbox. And to be honest, I do a good job of this with my therapy clients but not such a great job of it at home with my family! One of the biggest frustrations in any relationship is when you don’t feel heard by the other person. Reflective listening can be key to de-escalating tense situations and making the other person feel validated. This does not mean that you’re agreeing with the other person, it simply means, you’re summarizing what you just heard them say. This is such an awkward skill to use at first, as it doesn’t feel natural, but I usually say something like, “I heard you say that you think I don’t think you have good ideas, and that makes you think I don’t value you, is that right?” or, “It sounds like you’re feeling like I’m not listening to you, is that how you’re feeling?” Once you get the hang of it, this can be such a good tool in repairing disagreements.
Many of my HSP clients overthink every interaction that have with others which is exhausting to say the least. Overthinking, especially in a specific relationship, is a good indicator that there are insecurities for some reason in the relationship. This might be an indicator that you personally have some self-worth issues to work through, that you don’t feel confident in your ability to interact with others. Or it might mean you’re not feeling secure with that person. Or it could mean that person is saying or doing things that are making you doubt yourself. Regardless of the reason, it might be helpful to do some reflecting on why this is happening.
Are you expecting those you are in a relationship with to read your mind? If so, you’re playing with fire. As much as I love my husband, I cannot read his mind. And he can’t read mine. And frankly, I’m thankful that I can’t read other people’s minds. You are responsible for communicating your wants and needs in a healthy way without expecting those around you to just “know” what you need. This is unfair and often leads to miscommunication and hurt feelings.
Also known as the silent treatment, stonewalling sends nonverbal messages to the other person that they have offended you in some way or vice versa. Most people use this technique to avoid a confrontation, get the other person to read their mind or they’re feeling overwhelmed and need a break. This usually tends to escalate agreements rather than repair them because the other person is held “hostage” by your silence until you decide to talk. It’s better to communicate with the other person that you need a break, and once your brain is “back online” you can revisit the conversation.
There are many more examples I could give to help you have healthy communication, but this is a good start. And I promise, if you start by figuring out your own blind spots in healthy communication, practicing these skills with others, and using them consistently, things will get better. If you’re still stuck on how to have healthy communication, it might be time to get some outside help with either counseling or coaching.
I love working with highly sensitive people. If you think you might need counseling or coaching, and especially If you’re highly sensitive, please feel free to contact me at 317.496.0456 or email email@example.com. I’d be happy to hear what is happening and help you find the right fit for counseling or life coaching. If you are looking for help with burn out, depression, anxiety, trauma or behavioral concerns, you can read more about how I can help at my website peacefamilycounseling.
Canary, D. J. and Susan J. Messman, “Relationship Conflict,” in Close Relationships: A Sourcebook, eds. Clyde Hendrick and Susan S. Hendrick (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2000), 261–70.
Markman, H. J., Mari Jo Renick, Frank J. Floyd, Scott M. Stanley, and Mari Clements, “Preventing Marital Distress through Communication and Conflict Management Training: A 4- and 5-Year Follow-Up,” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 61, no. 1 (1993): 70–77.
*I found this quote on my phone and I don’t know who said it or when, and when I tried to look it up online, I couldn’t find it there either.